SaskPower says solar plan to power up to 12,000 homes by 2021

SaskPower says between 10,000-12,000 homes in Saskatchewan will be run on solar power by 2021, from a project aiming to deliver 60 megawatts. Some of that electricity should be reaching the grid by 2018.

Crown says between 10,000-12,000 Sask. homes will run on solar power within 5 years

SaskPower says between 10,000-12,000 homes in Saskatchewan will be run on solar power by 2021, from a project aiming to deliver 60 megawatts. Some of that electricity should be reaching the grid by 2018.

The government's target is to have 50 per cent of its power delivered by renewable sources by 2030.​

"So if we think about it, 2000 megawatts would be about fifty per cent of our mix today," said Guy Bruce, SaskPower's Vice President of Planning, Environment and Sustainable development. "So it's a relatively small percentage, but it's a move in the right direction."

Three types of solar power providers

The 60-megawatt plan is divided into three types of providers. Twenty megawatts are expected to be provided by community projects, and another 20 from a competitive bidding process with vendors due to begin in September. SaskPower says it's currently in negotiations with the First Nations Power Authority to provide two more 10-megawatt solar projects. ​

Bruce says the three types of providers will help the utility to determine how each delivery method works, and which works best. 

SaskPower is seeking qualified vendors right away. Its competitive procurement process will begin in December, and consultation for community projects will begin this fall. 

Sites subject to environmental approval

Bruce says says SaskPower will propose a site in southern Saskatchewan, but will also allow groups and companies proposing projects to also suggest sites. He says SaskPower hasn't yet narrowed down its prospective site, which will be subject to environmental approval. 

"Just to put it in perspective, 10 megawatts of solar panels will cover about 70 acres of land, so it's not a rooftop," he explained.

While solar projects don't impact surrounding plants and animals the same ways as other power generation methods, Bruce says the ground-mounted solar panels will take up a lot of space. 

"For example, native prairie grass species at risk are a concern for all projects— it doesn't matter what they are, whether they're solar, wind, or gas fire generation— you have to make sure you've checked all those things out before you begin generation," he said.

SaskPower expects the first 10 megawatt portion of the project to be in service in 2018. 

Why now?

While the move is part of the government's goal to generate half its power from renewable sources, Bruce pointed out solar generation has seen a "quite dramatic" price drop, and SaskPower sees it as more reasonable now. 

"We think solar is still more expensive than wind. In terms of renewable power, wind is still the best bet for Saskatchewan. But solar is just coming down in price so we want to see where is the market at now, and start small." 

While wind, solar and geothermal power generation are some methods that have been discussed previously, Bruce says 30 per cent of the plan will be covered by wind generation, which he says is "ambitious" but "quite doable." He said other methods are on the table including hydroelectricity, importing hydro power from Manitoba, and biomass generation. 

For now, the crown utility provider isn't sure whether it will employ more than the 60 megawatts of solar power for its 2030 deadline.

"Let's see what the cost comes in at, make sure it's reasonable and our customers don't have to pay any more than they have to for their power," Bruce said.

Environmentalist views move as 'positive'

"I think it's a positive announcement by the province," Peter Prebble, from the Saskatchewan Environmental Society, said Thursday, noting the announcement referenced a variety of projects. "There's a nice mix here ... so kudos to the province."

Prebble added he hopes the amount of power generated by solar projects will increase.

"This is a good start and SaskPower is to be commended," he said.

Prebble said the government should also consider improving programs that provide financial incentives to use renewal energy.

"It's really important to incent renewable power," he said. "Natural gas and coal are not paying the costs that are associated with the environmental damage they're doing. So that's why we need to incentivize solar a little more than we're doing right now in Saskatchewan."

Prebble pointed out that southern Saskatchewan gets a lot of sunlight.

"We've got the best sunlight resource in all of Canada here," he said. "So it really makes sense for us to utilize our solar resource to produce electricity."

He said he views the SaskPower announcement as the start to "a very exciting future" for solar projects.

With files from CBC Radio's The Afternoon Edition