Just 125 kilometers south of Calgary in the municipality of Willow Creek, 1,280 acres of land is being put to use in a new kind of farming venture — solar energy farming.
Following the project’s 2019 approval by the Alberta Utilities Commission, a signed credit agreement in July 2020 marked the true beginning of Alberta’s most ambitious green energy project in the province’s history. The agreement, shared among ATB Financial, Fiera Infrastructure Private Debt Fund LP, and Telus Pensions Liability Hedging Master Trust, allocated up to $115 million of funds to this $200 million project.
For its part, the 132 MWac (AC capacity) state-of-the-art undertaking was set to offer more than 300 full-time employment opportunities throughout its 18-month construction period and will benefit the community through its long-term property tax input. The project’s territory covers eight quarter-sections of land, or 1,280 acres, making it the largest of its kind in Alberta.
Owned by the longstanding Granum Hutterite Colony, the land will make it possible to reduce emissions by approximately 149,000 MT CO2 (Metric Tons of Carbon Dioxide). Farm-generated solar power will be sold primarily to TC Energy through a Power Purchasing Agreement, while the remainder will contribute to the Alberta Wholesale Pool. The site announced operation as of April 29, 2021.
The site was chosen due to its soil salinity, resulting low crop production, and proximity to transmission lines. The Granum 604S substation connects the power plant to the Interconnected Electric System and has no effect on the surrounding prairie or native vegetation. Panels are elevated by one metre on steel structures and positioned at an angle, extending the height to just over three metres. Elevation and shade provided by the structures means the area may be used as grazing pasture.
Solar Opportunity in Alberta
The solar infrastructure will generate power throughout the daylight hours all year long when energy needs are highest and the most expensive. Although the effectiveness of solar generation is limited in the winter when Alberta sees less than eight hours of daylight, summer generation peaks at over 17 hours of daily generation opportunity (weather dependent).
Albedo and Global Solar Generation Opportunity
Some researchers have turned their attention to deserts lately, considering the potential for these, typically barren, environments to power the world’s energy systems. But the question is about more than, Can it be done? — environmentalists ask whether it should?
The Sahara Desert is the world’s largest expanse of desert land and has the potential to meet the world’s current demand by more than four times using solar generated power. But what sounds like a no-brainer becomes more complex as soon as its collective influence on the environments beyond the Sahara is considered. While widespread solar power generation significantly decreases reliability on fossil fuels, its effect on the soil’s surface is notable.
A surface’s level of reflectivity is indicated by its albedo — the higher the albedo, the higher the reflectivity value. Desert sand is highly reflective and, therefore, carries a higher albedo than the black surfaces of the solar panels that would cover it. This is relevant because, while sand reflects heat outward, solar panels release 85% of the energy as heat near the soil.
Scientists used a climate model to demonstrate that heating up a large portion of the Saharan desert floor would increase the contrast between ocean temperature and land temperature and ultimately result in more rain. Plants would grow more easily in this new environment and would absorb the light beaming onto the soil and foliage rather than reflecting it. A subsequent evaporation and condensation cycle means that vegetation would do well while clean energy is being simultaneously produced. So, what’s the catch?
All About Balance
Subsequent studies have indicated that, although local benefits are real, a project of this size and scope could cause temperature increases globally as its heat is dispersed throughout the atmosphere. Extrapolations have warned of changes in the rainforests of the Amazon, potentially causing drought and harm to habitat, and an increase in extreme weather along the coasts of North America and Eastern Asia.
The challenge, then, is determining where and how large these solar programs can be implemented to derive maximum power generation for local benefit without placing undue hardship on other natural systems and cycles. To date, the largest global solar farms are located in desert or desert-like climates.
Doing Our Part
As our province sees the growing opportunity for further green energy to be placed onto the electrical grid, our energy sources become more diversified and foster less reliance on fossil fuels to power our homes, hospitals and other infrastructure. This trend toward greener energy production can be further supported by making small changes to our energy use such as limiting air-conditioner use or shutting lights out when leaving a room. For more about how you can save on your power bill, see our previous blog entry.