Interest in municipal solar projects heating up in Alberta

Big Lakes County in northern Alberta is no stranger to farming, but a new type of farm has popped up outside its public works building: solar.

Late last year the county installed a solar photovoltaic (PV) system that is expected to produce more than 254,000 kilowatt hours of electricity per year.

County CAO Jordan Panasiuk said the project has made the county’s public works and administration buildings net-zero.

“We did it to cut emissions, but we also did it because it just makes good financial sense,” said Panasiuk.

“We did get a pretty generous grant. So these panels will pay for themselves within about 13 years — that’ll give us about 16 years of free power.”

Big Lakes County was able to build its solar farm with funding from the Federal Gas Tax fund and a grant from the Alberta Municipal Solar Program, which paid for about 41 per cent of the project cost.

The Municipal Solar Program is offered by the Municipal Climate Change Action Centre (MCCAC), a partnership between the Alberta Urban Municipalities Association, the Rural Municipalities of Alberta, and the Government of Alberta.

The Municipal Solar Program started five years ago but 2020 was by far its biggest year: 22 projects were completed and the program saw its energy capacity almost double, from 10 megawatts (MW) to 19 — enough to power more than 3,200 homes in the province each year. That number is up to 20.5 MW as of March. 

Marc Baxter, program lead for renewables programs with the MCCAC, said projects like the one in Big Lakes County show that even smaller projects can have multiple benefits. 

“They’re fairly easily able to use that space that otherwise would go unused and generate electricity, offset energy from some facilities, and then be able to obviously lower their emissions, too, which is great,” he said. 

The program is a relatively small but important part of the province’s solar industry, which currently has a number of multimillion-dollar projects on the way including a massive solar farm in Vulcan County and a 627-acre project at the Edmonton International Airport.

So far 60 different municipalities have participated in the program and 112 solar PV systems have been installed. The program has created the equivalent of about 305 full-time jobs and is currently helping to reduce GHG emissions by almost 14,000 tonnes of CO2 equivalent per year. 

Open to any municipality

Any municipality in Alberta can participate in the program with some conditions.

The solar system must be wholly owned and located within the participating municipality and the solar system must be new and greater than or equal to two kilowatts. The system must also be compliant with provincial regulations and installed by a qualified installer. 

The amount of rebate depends on the size of the project, but ranges from $0.90 per watt for projects under 10 kilowatts and $0.55 per watt for projects that are two to five megawatts.

The new solar farm in Big Lakes County is expected to produce 254,513 kWh of electricity per year. (Big Lakes County)

The program is currently funded through a grant from the provincial government, which is set to finish next year. However, it’s offered on a first-come, first-served basis and so could finish before then. 

The program has help fund a wide-range of different projects, including a massive rooftop project in the City of Airdrie on Genesis Place recreation centre — the largest municipal rooftop solar PV system in the country with a 1.55 MW system capacity.

Currently under construction projects funded through the program include a public works shop project in Lacombe, a transit garage solar system in Banff and a ground mount project in the Town of Smoky Lake. 

Smoky Lake’s project aims to bring the town to net-zero electricity in its operations. If successful, it’ll be the ninth municipality in the province to do so with funding through the program. 

Environmental and cost-saving

Baxter said there are many good reasons for a municipality to want to participate in the program.

“We’ve heard from municipalities kind of across the spectrum for why they’re participating in the program, but it ranges from those municipalities that have really robust climate action plans or environmental plans, and they’re looking to reduce their emissions,” he said.

“And others are maybe not so much interested in the environmental side of things but, more and more, the technology is declining in costs and the industry is growing.

“They’re seeing it as an opportunity to save on their energy costs, kind of regardless of anything else, and have some long-term financial sustainability from the utility perspective.”

In Big Lakes County, which is highly dependent on oil and gas, Panasiuk said some people were skeptical of the county’s green energy project, but he thinks more people will support it when they realize the financial equation involved. 

“With the government subsidies out there, it made a lot of sense and it kind of killed two birds with one stone — more towards reducing our corporate emissions and it makes us more money than if that money would have sitting in our investments.”

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