By Cole Parkinson
Sunny South News
As renewable energy continues to gain traction in Alberta, discussions have continued on what benefits the technology can bring to the province and the taxpayers who live within.
At the 2022 Action Surface Rights Annual General Meeting held in March, SkyFireEnergy presented to those in attendance and gave some clarity on their work and solar in general.
“The reason I like solar so much, there are several reasons. There are no moving parts, we can take a corner and we’re very modular and it can scale up to meet demands. The technology has been proven over the decades and everything is getting better. We’re getting better technology,” explained Greg Sauer, VP of Sales for SkyFireEnergy. “We (SkyFireEnergy) really are the pioneer — we’ve been around this business for 20 years.”
And while technology has gotten better over the years, Sauer said there’s still plenty of room to grow.
“These are incremental changes and efficiencies go up a little bit every year, but by in large though, a system put up 20 years ago looks a lot like a system being put up this year.”
In the area, RenuWell has been working hard on their pilot program which will see small-scale solar projects placed on abandoned oil well lease sites. Sauer stated that SkyFireEnergy has been in favour of that project and they are excited at the possibilities it may bring in the future.
“We’ve been supporting that project for the better part of six years and it is now coming to fruition. This will be coming to an area near you very soon.”
In terms of solar at the current moment in the province, the results have been encouraging. And moving forward, Sauer says solar could expand and start to fill the gap coal generation will leave behind when the last of those facilities are shut down.
“This is probably the first year in the history of solar in Alberta that we can say we sell solar on economics. It’s quite remarkable,” he said. “We used to be an electrical grid that was dominated by coal. By 2023, we will see the last coal generation stations coming offline, that’s remarkable. That’s good news in a lot of respects, and I won’t get into why — everyone has their own take on that. A lot of that is going to be taken over by natural gas and a significantly less portion will be wind, solar, and hydro. Wind and solar are newer incumbents, but on a levelized cost of electricity basis, it’s super competitive. That is a big piece of it right there.”
While power costs have been low for Albertans in the last several years, transmission and delivery charges have continued to rise. Sauer explained that many people don’t completely understand what goes into their power bill.
“There’s a lot of illiteracy in Alberta about electricity for a very good reason. You can go deep down the rabbit hole — what’s important when you start looking at your electricity bill, there’s a retail rate and there are all of those transmission delivery charges. The last several years, Albertans have enjoyed the lowest cost of electricity in probably North America. For the retail rate, the cost of transmission and distribution is not the lowest. We’re kind of middle of the pack in Alberta. In the last year though, that has changed quite dramatically. In 2020, we were at about 6.5 cents per kilowatt-hour and last year we were are 9.39, so you are talking 50 per cent escalation.”
As the push for renewables continues in Alberta, Sauer sees a great opportunity for growth in southern Alberta. And that doesn’t just mean large-scale generation — Sauer explained micro generation and small-scale will start to carve out space as well.
“When you strip it right down to what is the cost for each of these generators — whether it be coal, natural gas, solar, or wind — to generate a kilowatt-hour or megawatt-hour of electricity, solar is king. The reason for that is we don’t have feedstock. The feedstock is the sun and there is a lot of it in southern Alberta and the same with wind,” he said. “If we assume the cost from over the last 15 years at 7.5 cents — I think the cost going forward will be higher — if you are taking the irrigation service in the M.D. of Taber, you are at about 7.9 cents for that variable portion. Your all-in savings when you add all of those up is about 15.5 cents. If you are producing energy by your own system, you are now a generator and you can produce it at five, six, or seven cents and you’re producing energy at one-third to half of the price.”
One potential drawback to solar brought up was around weather damage. Sauer explained there has only been one large incident that has come forward when north Calgary was hit by a large hail storm. Beyond hail, solar infrastructure is built to last, according to Sauer.
“In our 20 years and hundreds of thousands of modules installed, we’ve had only one big event in northeast Calgary,” he confirmed. “They are designed for a one-inch object travelling at effectively 40 miles per hour. Temperate glass is very resilient in most cases.”
Looking at southern Alberta in particular, Sauer sees renewable energy expansion as a great fit. With plenty of sun and wind available throughout the year, there’s tons of opportunity. While solar generation may not be great in the winter, there is still some generation, but it wouldn’t be as effective as it would be in the spring, summer, and fall.
“We get 10-15 per cent production in December and January, that’s cause we get short days. You get snow coverage and it’s also very diffuse. The solar hitting your skin is not tanning your skin and it’s not tanning the modules, so 10-15 per cent. You could do a little better with tilted modules, but the reality is there’s a lot more in May and June when we have long days,” continued Sauer.
A question from the audience was posed about what happens to infrastructure when it’s removed and if the materials can be recycled. Sauer explained the vast majority of solar infrastructure can be recycled after the end date of the project.
“There’s actually a company out of the Taber area, they have been working on this. They have partnered up with a university in Ontario. It’s not rocket science — they put it into a crusher and a lot of the materials will be aluminum, glass, and they separate out those raw materials,” he replied. “They also have some base metals as well and everything is getting recycled. The steel or aluminum is getting recycled and there will be an inverter which is a relatively small piece that won’t necessarily be recyclable. Any fear mongering you are hearing about solar and recycling, I think is a pretty moot point because the value of all of those commodities — steel, aluminum, glass — is valuable. Those will be more valuable in 30 years and I personally have no concerns from a moral perspective.”
Another question around solar efficiency was brought up. While Sauer explained solar could bridge some of the gap that would be left by coal generation, he also explained other methods are still needed to meet demands.
“Solar by ourself, we are limited. No one in our industry is trying to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes and saying ‘solar can do it all.’ It’s combined — we need those base load generators that can still put out at night,” he responded. “Wind and solar work well together because wind typically blows at night and in the winter and solar is during the day. If we can do battery, wind, solar, and storage, that’s the best of all worlds. It’s really the best made in Alberta solution as well because we’ve got some of the best solar and wind.”