How Canada's largest solar farm is changing Alberta's landscape

·6 min read
The Travers Solar Project, the largest solar farm in Canada, is under construction in Lomond, Alta. (Carolyn Dunn/CBC - image credit)
The Travers Solar Project, the largest solar farm in Canada, is under construction in Lomond, Alta. (Carolyn Dunn/CBC - image credit)

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What's most stunning about the Travers Solar Project is its size.

Imagine a seemingly endless prairie wheat or canola field. Except this land is filled with steel piles: 228,000 of them, when the last one is finally driven into the ground.

A kilometre or so down a service road in Lomond, Alta., in Vulcan County, the next phase of construction is taking shape: row upon row of black solar panels, already tilting at the sun.

Dan Balaban is the CEO of Greengate Power, the company developing the massive project. He's overwhelmed by the progress, saying that standing among the panels is a very different experience than seeing it in a virtual reality model.

He's emotional, he says, to "actually see an idea that we conceived almost five years ago now turn into reality."

When complete, the nearly 3,300 acres (1,335 ha) of land will be covered in 1.3 million solar panels, each one of them 1.2 by 1.8 metres in size. A member of the Greengate Power team crunches the numbers on his smartphone and estimates the finalized project will be roughly equivalent to 1,600 Canadian Football League fields — or more than five square miles.

The project will produce enough electricity to power 150,000 homes, provide much-needed jobs and investment in the area, and exploit Alberta's renewable resources — a timely endeavour given the increased demand for green energy, and a global priority as world leaders gather in Glasgow for the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26).

The Conference of Parties (COP), as it's known, meets every year and is the global decision-making body set up to implement the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, adopted in the early 1990s, and subsequent climate agreements.

"We need to move beyond talking about solutions. And I'm really proud that our company is helping create real, clean electrons. We need more projects like this," Balaban said.

Canada's largest solar project attracts investors

The Travers Solar Project will be the largest solar farm to date in Canada. Currently, the largest solar farms are both in Ontario: the Sol-Luce Kingston project and Grand Renewable Energy Park, each with a capacity of 100 megawatts, according to Natural Resources Canada's most recent information.

It is no small part in why Alberta is leading renewable energy growth in the country. This one project essentially doubles the province's solar capacity.

That achievement hasn't come cheap. Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners, one of the world's largest renewable energy investment firms, has put up the entire cost of $700 million to make the project a reality — its first funding in the Canadian market.

Carolyn Dunn/CBC
Carolyn Dunn/CBC

Online sales giant Amazon was ready and waiting to buy all the electricity the solar farm can harvest in its effort to reduce its company emissions (although it has not yet revealed which facility it will be powering). For the record, that's 465 megawatts of alternating currents (MWac), I think this is really fantastic," said Balaban, who has been developing renewable energy projects for 15 years.

Increased demand for green energy

There's a growing demand for electricity generated by renewable resources by corporations like Amazon. Both governments and consumers are demanding companies reduce emissions and reduce their environmental footprint.

In Alberta, the conditions for a transition to renewable energy sources are ripe, says Darren Christie, the chief economist for the Canada Energy Regulator.

"There's a real concerted effort in the province to phase out the existing coal generation, and that's really created a window of opportunity for all other sorts of power, but very particularly wind and solar," he said.

A host of other factors make southern Alberta arguably the most appealing place in North America for renewable energy projects.

Alberta's energy market is deregulated. While that has a mixed record when it comes to consumers, there is no question it makes private investment easier, said Blake Shaffer, an assistant professor in the University of Calgary's department of economics.

And given the current increased demand for green energy, there's even more motivation for investors to fund these kinds of projects, he said.

"Most of Canada is government-owned utilities, but here, if you and I had enough money, we could go and build utility-scale generation and connect it to the grid," Shaffer said.

That's precisely what Greengate Power has done.

But all the deregulation in the world wouldn't make a project investment-worthy without a bankable resource. In this case, it's the sun.

WATCH | How an Alberta community is struggling with a transition to green energy:

Southern prairie sunbelt

With about 320 sunny days each year, southern Alberta and Saskatchewan are known as Canada's sunbelt.

And the Travers Solar Project's panels tilt to make the most of every minute of that sun, explained Daryl Campbell, the site supervisor from PCL Construction, the company contracted to build the site. "In the morning, the panels will face toward the east, and as the sun slowly moves across the sky, it'll track the sun," he said.

The panels are bi-facial, or double-sided, too. So, in the winter the sun will reflect off the snow and into the solar panel, pumping electricity into the power grid.

Carolyn Dunn/CBC
Carolyn Dunn/CBC

Concern about landscape and use of farmland

Not everyone is thrilled with the renewable energy projects in these parts, however. The proliferation of windmills and this new solar project are changing the look of the prairie landscape.

Vulcan County Reeve Jason Schneider says one of the biggest concerns he hears from locals is that the mega-project and others coming to the area soon will gobble up too much agricultural land.

Vulcan County steers the companies to the least productive land, Schneider said.

But on the other hand, after a devastating downturn in the oil and gas industry in the area, he says being a hub for renewable energy is powering some hope for the future.

In recent years, failing and insolvent oil and gas companies walked away from their tax bills, leaving Vulcan County $8 million in the hole. That's equivalent to $2,000 for every resident.

Investment and jobs welcome after oil and gas downturn

So, Schneider is keen to put tough times in the past and refill the tax coffers with money from renewable energy companies. "It's investment, it's development, it's jobs. So, hey, we will take it."

Carolyn Dunn/CBC
Carolyn Dunn/CBC

One of the 580 people working on site now is Devon Bearhat, a member of the nearby Siksika Nation.

"A lot of these people that I've gotten this employment opportunity [with], they're really struggling to find work elsewhere," he said.

Bearhat took a break from studying for his bachelor of science in construction management for this job and the experience that comes with it. "It's something that's going to be under my belt for the rest of my life," he said.

The Travers Solar Project will employ another 250 people as more supplies arrive to further ramp up construction. Only 10 people will be employed full time once construction of the solar farm is done.

The project is scheduled to be completed by the end of next year.

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