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Sun smiles on prospects as Kimberley solar farm starts up

Project is a joint venture that includes the city, landowner Teck and renewable energy non-profit

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Wednesday, July 29, 2015
Derrick Penner
Vancouver Sun
Kimberley Mayor Don McCormick at the site of the town's SunMine solar energy project

VANCOUVER — The builders of British Columbia’s first grid-scale solar
power plant in Kimberley named the project SunMine owing in part to its
location on a former mine site. But the operation is also finding more sun
to mine, exceeding initial expectations for electricity production.

SunMine is small, just over one megawatt of generating capacity, but since
turning on the switch in June, the experimental facility has delivered
enough electricity to BC Hydro to power about 275 homes, considerably more
than expectations it would produce power for 200 homes.

“I’d say it’s operating at or a little above its designed potential,” said
Kevin Wilson, Kimberley’s economic development officer, “so as far as
surprises, I think we’re happy there are no surprises.”

Kimberley is one partner in a consortium that put the $5.3-million project
together. The others are landowner Teck Resources Ltd., the Columbia Basin
Trust and Southern Interior Development trust.

Non-profit renewable energy firm EcoSmart provided data to the consortium
to take on the project.

Construction on the facility started last fall as a proof-of-concept
exercise for solar power in B.C. where, to date, it has been a microscopic
factor in a province dominated by hydroelectricity.

They are selling the power its solar panels generate to BC Hydro on a
contract under the utility’s standing offer program, which it uses to
purchase small amounts of electricity by independent power projects at set
prices.

Wilson said SunMine’s business case is helped by the fact that it is the
first in Canada using trackers, sophisticated sensors hooked up to
mechanisms on the solar units capable of moving them independently to best
catch the sun.

“You can really see it perform on cloudy days,” Wilson said, watching the
units turn and pivot to find an optimal position.

“But as the sun breaks through the clouds, it’s like gravity — they all
get pulled toward the sun and align pretty quickly.”

The system also allows SunMine to optimize its power generation at sunrise
and sunset, times when electricity demand in B.C. is highest and BC Hydro
will pay a premium for the electricity.

The base rate that the utility pays SunMine is 11 cents a kilowatt hour,
Wilson said, with 20-per-cent extra for power delivered during high-demand
periods. Wilson said at those rates, SunMine is hoping to generate net
income of $50,000 to $100,000 annually.

The site has room for expansion, Wilson said, and they could build up to
seven megawatts of solar generation without having to upgrade the
transmission infrastructure left over from the facilities of the
Teck-owned former Sullivan Mine.

EcoSmart president Michel de Spot, who scoured B.C. weather data looking
for potential solar sights, prodded Kimberley into taking on the
initiative, which it did in part to promote the community as a centre for
innovation, according to the city’s chief administrative officer Scott
Sommerville.

And the project appears to have at least sparked more discussion about
solar power in B.C. since SunMine announced its intentions last year, BC
Hydro has “had a handful of developers” inquire about possibilities to
build solar, said spokeswoman Mora Scott, including colleges and First
Nations.

Randy Reimann, BC Hydro’s director of energy planning, said the utility’s
planning work estimates that on cost, solar is still about a decade away
from being competitive with the utility’s customer rates.

But they are seeing an increase in the number of signing on to its
net-metering solar program, which allows residential customers to plug
home solar systems into its distribution system. Homeowners with solar
panels sell excess electricity to BC Hydro, which gives them credits that
offset their electricity bills.

BC Hydro statistics show 450 customers on net metering with the capacity
to generate about two megawatts of electricity.

As with hybrid cars, Reimann said, buyers of solar panels spend more
upfront, with an uncertain financial payback.

“But it’s more efficient and better for the environment,” he added.

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