The light went on for Jake Kubiski when he was on vacation in Costa Rica in 2015. In addition to the beaches and cultural attractions, Kubiski discovered that the small Central American country was a world leader in renewable energy. “On most days, they were getting 100 percent or almost 100 percent of their electrical energy from renewable sources,” he says. “I was pretty inspired by that.”
At the time, Kubiski was a journeyman electrician in Alberta’s oil and gas sector, having spent years working for Suncor in Fort McMurray and at the Shell Scotford upgrader on the outskirts of Edmonton near the City of Fort Saskatchewan. On his return from Costa Rica, Kubiski surveyed the market to see how many companies around Edmonton were working in the solar power space. He found only a couple, and thought he saw an opportunity. So, he took additional training in the installation of solar photovoltaic (PV) systems and founded Kuby Renewable Energy in Alberta’s capital city.
Now, in addition to rooftop and ground solar PV systems, Kuby Renewable installs battery systems and electric vehicle chargers. Kubiski has as many as 20 employees working for him and, despite some turmoil in the market as governments change the rules around subsidies for electric cars and solar PV, Kubiski says the future is bright.
“The industry is on an upward path,” he says. “Solar just makes economic sense now.”
The only real question is just how big will the solar PV industry get?
“We’ve gotten to the point where the cost of the technology is so low that it doesn’t make any sense to have a handout from the public purse.” – Peter Casurella, executive director of the SouthGrow Regional Initiative
Despite being at a more northerly latitude than much of Ontario and Quebec, the sun shines long and bright on the southern reaches of Alberta, making it one of the best places in Canada to generate solar electricity.
“Southern Alberta gets more sunshine hours per year than any other part of the country, and much of North America,” says Peter Casurella, executive director of the SouthGrow Regional Initiative, an economic development alliance supporting 26 communities across southcentral Alberta.
That natural resource, combined with constant improvements in technology and the plummeting cost of solar panels, means solar is moving into southern Alberta in a big way. Casurella says there are nine utility-scale renewable energy projects being built in southern Alberta between now and 2022, representing $1.5 billion in capital expenditures.
“It has become the second largest pillar of the regional economy, after agri-food,” he says, “and the exciting thing is that we don’t see it slowing down.”
The biggest of the projects under construction is the $500-million Travers Solar Project. Calgary-based Greengate Power is behind the 400-megawatt development, which includes 4,700 acres of land near the Village of Lomond approximately 180 kilometres southeast of Calgary. Once fully operational, the Travers Solar Project is expected to power more than 100,000 homes, making it the largest solar PV facility in Canada and one of the largest in the world.
Importantly, it is being built without the help of government subsidies and will sell the electricity into the grid at market prices.
“That’s ideal,” says Casurella. “We’ve gotten to the point where the cost of the technology is so low that it doesn’t make any sense to have a handout from the public purse.”
Indeed, the project will pay into the public purse through an estimated $4 million in annual assessed taxes for the county, $2.8 million in annual land leases to landowners and 300 temporary construction jobs. Ironically, solar power plants – even when they’re as big as the Travers Solar Project – don’t require a large operational staff and the Travers Solar Project is expected to provide only about 10 long-term jobs.
“They’re very efficient in that sense,” says Casurella, “which is one of the things that makes them competitive with other forms of energy.”
While southern Alberta has an immense solar resource, opportunities for solar PV systems stretch well to the north. Red Deer College – a public post-secondary institution in the central Alberta city with the same name about halfway between Edmonton and Calgary – has looked for opportunities to make its campus more sustainable for the past decade. The college has been investing in energy efficient, LEED-certified buildings and a 1-megawatt combined heat and power (CHP) plant – it uses a natural gas powered generator to create electricity, and the waste heat from the generator is used to simultaneously generate useful heat.“We started to save so much in energy costs we wondered if it was possible to push the edge a bit more and achieve net-zero,” says Jason Mudry, director of campus management at Red Deer College.
“Alberta’s solar producing capacity is above that of Germany, which is one of the countries that has adopted solar in large volume. The solar capacity in Western Canada is simply tremendous.” – Joel Gingrich, dean of Red Deer College’s School of Trades and Technologies
In an effort to achieve that goal, the college recently had Kuby Renewable install the largest solar array on a post-secondary institute in Canada – 4,200 solar panels across several buildings, enough to generate 1.6 megawatts of electricity. The $4-million project saw panels installed on top of the new Gary W. Harris Canada Games Centre, the carpentry and automotive labs, and a new student residence. A solar-covered pedway was also built between some of the buildings.
Combined with the CHP plant, the solar array generates a significant portion of the electricity required by the campus. Occasionally, Red Deer College actually feeds electricity back into the power grid. Perhaps just as importantly, the college has integrated the solar project into its research and teaching. It has built a 4,000-square-foot alternative energy lab and dedicated a similar amount of roof space to experimental solar arrays so students and teachers can work with different kinds of panels, apply various treatments to them and change their orientation.
“The idea is to learn from renewable production across campus,” says Joel Gingrich, dean of Red Deer College’s School of Trades and Technologies. “How can students learn from that and how can we ask some questions and draw some conclusions around relative production efficiencies?”
The college is gathering data on which angle is best at which time of year for gathering the most solar energy. It’s gathering data on snow accumulation and how it affects performance, and at which pitch snow will just slide off.
“After we get a couple of years of data, we’ll look at the configurations to see which panels produce the most electricity per square foot,” says Mudry. “We’ll use that data to help us determine what the best configuration for future installations may be, and we may go back and make adjustments to our system.”
Combined with other alternative energy initiatives across the campus, the addition of solar gives Red Deer College a production environment as well as a micro-grid where students can learn about solar PV, solar thermal and small-scale wind, geothermal and waste-to- energy production. In essence, the college has become a living laboratory for data management, big data integration of various alternative energy systems and machine learning.
Gingrich says the initiative is garnering a lot of interest from electrical apprentices and students in engineering technology, as well as from contractors through continuing education programs. Kubiski says there will be jobs for the students when they graduate, should they want them. In the past, he has hired oil and gas workers who were looking to transfer into a new industry, but more recently he’s been hiring directly from alternative energy programs like the ones at Red Deer College and the Northern Alberta Institute of Tech nology in Edmonton.
“Those have been really good avenues of hiring because they’re people who really want to be in this industry,” says Kubiski. “Some are engineers, some are ex-accountants, it’s everybody really who wants to get into solar.”
The industry does face some obstacles. The electrical distribution grid is not built out sufficiently to accommodate the expected growth in renewable production, but that is being steadily improved and some producers are adding battery storage to their facilities to help combat the problem in the meantime.
But overall, solar energy is an industry on the rise in Alberta.
“The general consensus is that this isn’t going away,” says Red Deer College’s Gingrich, citing growing interest from institutional, commercial and residential customers alike. “Alberta’s solar producing capacity is above that of Germany, which is one of the countries that has adopted solar in large volume. The solar capacity in Western Canada is simply tremendous.”