Earth Wind & Fire

With a population of approximately 1,200 people, Stirling is the largest village in Alberta by population. Its other notable claim to fame: Stirling was the first net-zero village in all of Canada.

The rural community, which is 35 kilometres southeast of Lethbridge and sits along a highway leading to the Canada-United States border, achieved its net-zero status with a combination of rooftop and ground-mounted solar panels that generate 300 megawatt hours annually.

“It’s also a hedge against the future inflation of electricity rates,” says Trevor Lewington, mayor of Stirling and CEO of Economic Development Lethbridge. “We’re not going to reach climate targets on efficiency alone and the cost of renewables has fallen significantly.”

The Canadian government’s carbon pricing scheme is planned to reach $170 per tonne by 2030. Alberta reaches its deadline to eliminate coal-fired electricity generation that same year. So, the prospect of rising electricity rates from non-renewable sources is very real. Couple that with rising electricity consumption thanks to our reliance on technology that requires massive amounts of power (think electric vehicles, video streaming, e-commerce, cryptocurrency and data centres) and the case for renewable energy power generation strengthens.

That case — along with investment — has been growing in Alberta. In November 2021, there were 26 solar and 18 wind power projects in “proposed” or “construction” phases across the province, with a combined cost of $8.4 billion.

“There have been investments by nearly every major global player in Alberta. They see the opportunity here and it adds credibility to our industry,” says Lewington.

Major global players with investment dollars like Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners and multinational corporations with net-zero mandates like Amazon have come to Alberta, and they see an established renewable energy industry that began decades ago and is harnessing that experience to scale up and meet demand now, and well into the future.

Winds of Change

The first commercial wind facility in Canada was built in southern Alberta back in 1993. Cowley Ridge was built near Pincher Creek, a town with a population of more than 3,600 people and situated in rolling hills about 200 kilometres south of Calgary. By the time it was decommissioned by TransAlta in 2016, the wind farm consisted of 57 turbines and had a capacity of 16 megawatts (MW).

“We often use the phrase that we’re the oil sands of sun and wind,” says Bev Thornton, executive director of Alberta SouthWest Regional Alliance, a partnership of 15 communities, including Pincher Creek.

“The renewables conversation has been part of what we’ve done as a region for a very long time,” Thornton adds. “But when we started out, it was really very new.”

Back in 1993, Cowley Ridge combined with hydro and biomass for 1,035 MW of electricity capacity, which was 13 per cent of the province’s total. By 2020, renewable electricity capacity — a combination of wind, hydro, biomass and now solar — reached 3,194 MW, which was 19 per cent of the province’s capacity. These numbers show the rise in production — and also demand — for power in the province.

A little more than 1,850 MW of that renewable electricity capacity can be attributed to wind and solar projects, and much of that development has taken place in southern Alberta.

“Solar and wind projects are similar to oil and gas projects in that the industry goes to the resources,” says Derrick Krizsan, chief administration officer with the Municipal District of Willow Creek. “The availability of solar and wind are bringing the industry here. It’s really an industry-driven process and the drivers are based on availability.”

The Municipal District of Willow Creek is a region made up of four towns and a few other communities with a combined population of approximately 15,000 people, 150 kilometres south of Calgary. Krizsan notes that the district is home to about 20 per cent of all the commercial solar and wind production in Alberta. “During development there’s construction employment and benefits to towns for housing, rentals, food, gas are significant. There are ongoing benefits after construction in terms of employment and service contractors.”

Another benefit is the increasing number and size of projects.

TransAlta, a Calgary-based power company with operations across Canada, the United States and Australia, has been operating wind farms in Alberta since 2001 and completed its Windrise Wind Project in the Municipal District of Willow Creek in June 2021. The project spans 11,000 acres and includes 43 turbines with a combined capacity of 206 MW.

Windrise was a significant milestone for TransAlta. It has the highest capacity among the company’s portfolio of 21 wind farms and of the 10 in Alberta, the closest in size is just 75 MW.

Rising Sun

The Municipal District of Willow Creek is also home to the Claresholm Solar Project. It became Canada’s largest solar project when it was completed in April 2021. The $200-million project has a capacity of 132 MW and was a joint development between Denmark-based Obton A/S, one of Europe’s largest solar investors, and Capstone Infrastructure, a Toronto-based clean power producer.

While the abundance of sunshine in southern Alberta — over 320 days per year — was a major factor in building the project in this province, a deregulated electricity market was also a draw for Capstone.

“Alberta has a deregulated, open market for power, allowing buyers and sellers of renewable energy to come together and allow companies to save money on electricity costs and offset their emissions,” says David Eva, CEO of Capstone. The deregulated market and the trend for large corporations to achieve net-zero status helps drive these larger developments. Capstone signed a power purchase agreement with Calgary-based TC Energy for 74 MW of the electricity generated by the Claresholm Solar Project.

“Generating clean and renewable energy is critical for achieving a low-carbon future,” adds Eva. “We’re now seeing major multinational corporations outside of the oil and gas sector — like Amazon and TELUS — making commitments to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 and investing in Alberta renewables in order to meet these goals.”

Greengate Power is another renewable energy producer that is investing in a big way.

The Calgary-based company is behind the $700 million Travers Solar project, which it’s developing with support from Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners (CIP), a fund-management company focused on energy infrastructure. CIP has approximately 15 billion EUR under management.

“To get foreign direct investment from high-quality investors like CIP, I think is a great signal that Alberta is still a really attractive place to invest for the right types of projects,” says Dan Balaban, CEO of Greengate.

Travers Solar is being constructed on over 3,000 acres of land in Vulcan County, a region approximately 130 kilometres southeast of Calgary. Upon completion in 2022, the 465 MW project is expected to be the largest solar farm in North America and has executed a purchase-power agreement with Amazon that covers up to 400 MW of the electricity generated at the site.

“As the technology has continued to improve and be proven out, global capital is increasing for investment in this space and large projects make sense because they have tremendous economies of scale,” says Balaban. “The renewable energy projects provide a significant environmental benefit, but they’re now also very economically compelling.”

One challenge that solar and wind producers face is that these renewable energy sources only provide intermittent power. Because the sun does not shine 24 hours a day and wind does not always blow at optimum speeds, solar and wind cannot provide baseload power to the electricity grid.

In an attempt to help solve that problem, Greengate has several battery storage projects in development. One of those is Midnight Solar, a 465 MW solar project that includes battery storage and is proposed for a site on the outskirts of Medicine Hat, a city of approximately 63,000 people in the southeast corner of Alberta that sits a little more than 50 kilometres from the provincial border.

“Just like we proved that large-scale wind could work here and just like we proved large-scale solar could work here, the next big step we hope to demonstrate is large-scale energy storage in Alberta,” says Balaban. “If we’re able to pull that project off, we will be able to generate solar energy, even at midnight.”

Underground Movement

Another solution to the intermittent challenge that’s starting to heat up in Alberta is geothermal power.

Geothermal energy is the ability to harness the heat below the Earth’s surface and use it for heat or electricity. It’s a technology that has been around for decades, but had been a niche market in Canada due to cost and the need for a particular geology when it came to conventional geothermal projects.

Now, a handful of Alberta-based companies are putting their own twists on geothermal to develop unconventional projects and prove that this baseload power can be an important part of the future’s energy mix.

“Geothermal has been commercialized for over 100 years at this point, but a lot of that is high temperature and the ability to actually take the lower temperatures like we have here in the Western Canadian Sedimentary Basin and convert those to electricity, just hasn’t been available until the last 15 to 20 years,” says Marc Colombina, vice-president of operations with Terrapin Geothermics. “So, now that the technology is more robust, the ability to look at other unconventional sources of geothermal energy is now an option.”

Colombina also serves as the project manager for Alberta No. 1. The 10 MW geothermal power project is being developed by Terrapin in the Municipal District of Greenview, a region with a population of more than 5,500 that sits on the outskirts of Grande Prairie in northwest Alberta.

The $90 million project launched in August 2019 with $25.42 million in funding from Natural Resources Canada and is expected to be commercial in 2025.

In a geothermal project like Alberta No. 1, a well is drilled deep below the surface to a brine reservoir. The hot reservoir fluid is pumped to the surface and thermal energy is extracted through a heat exchanger to power a turbine, generating electricity. The brine is then pumped back underground, where the cycle continues.

“If you’re pumping brine out of the ground, that’s being pumped 24/7 and so that facility is running 24/7,” says Colombina. “If you have a 10 MW geothermal plant, you have 10 MW of generation for 95 per cent of the year. That’s why it’s a baseload power source.”

In addition to improved technology, the geothermal industry in Alberta has benefitted from decades of oil and gas development.

“The other piece that’s really driving it within Alberta is that geothermal energy is the renewable that is closest to our existing skillset within the province,” says Colombina. “Geothermal energy is the only renewable that you’re drilling wells, you’re producing fluid to surface, you’re injecting fluid, all things that Albertans know how to do and know how to do well.”

Eavor Technologies is a Calgary-based company that is also tapping into Alberta’s geothermal potential — both the subsurface and the people.

“We are creating high-paying jobs that are year-long drilling projects on these well sites, and it’s great because we have a huge pool of talent where there’s no retraining required,” says Neil Ethier, Eavor’s director of business development – Americas. “These are engineers, geoscientists and finance people, almost all of them have come from the oil and gas sector, so it’s a really good-news story from that standpoint.”

Eavor had success with its pilot project near Rocky Mountain House, a town in central Alberta with a population of more than 6,600 people that’s about 75 kilometres west of Red Deer. The Eavor-Lite project consisted of two vertical wells drilled to a depth of 2.4 kilometres and under- ground by two multilateral legs. The wells were connected at surface by a pipeline to complete the closed loop system.

The facility was built to prove out the company’s technology and validate the thermodynamic performance of the system, which has received third-party validation. “What we’re offering is scalable, which means we don’t need specific subsurface conditions. We don’t need to have that permeable aquifer with enough deliverability,” says Ethier. “We are just drilling a subsurface radiator that allows our heat flow to be conductive, instead of convective. This is what allows it to become scalable, and go anywhere.”

The technical success of the demonstration caught the attention of investors around the world. In May 2020, Eavor entered an arrangement to develop its first commercial Eavor-Loop project with Enex Power Germany. Just nine months later, Eavor secured a funding round of $40 million that included investment from BDC Capital, Chevron Technology Ventures, bp ventures, Temasek, Eversource and Vickers Venture Partners.

Just as the cost of developing wind and solar projects decreased significantly as the number of projects increased, there’s hope on the horizon that geothermal will follow the same trend and offer a cost-effective, renewable baseload power source.

“You need to have other things which can provide that baseload energy because people’s needs demand it. We’re offering green baseload energy that’s scalable to support solar and wind or live on it’s own,” says Ethier.

“We want to be part of that energy solution.”

And Alberta is a place where all of those energy solutions are working together.

“We’re moving from a world where oil is our primary source of energy to one where clean electrons are our primary source of energy going forward,” says Greengate’s Balaban. “Alberta’s blessed in fossil fuel resources, but also phenomenal renewable energy resources, and I think we should be investing in both to ensure that we can remain prosperous today and prosperous well into the future.”