This Old Mine Is Now British Columbia’s Largest Solar Farm

For over a century, the landscape north of Kimberley, British Columbia, was used for intensive industrial hard-rock mining — but now it’s home to the largest solar farm in all of British Columbia. 

Over the decades, the site of Teck’s (formerly Cominco’s) Sullivan Mine hosted a steel mill, fertilizer plant and tailings ponds, rendering the area tree-less for the foreseeable future.

What to do with an elevated, south-facing slope that could never again see natural shade? Ecosmart, a Vancouver-based nonprofit, had a brilliant idea in 2008. Why not mine the sun?

“Solar energy is one of the fastest growing industries in North America, and its potential in B.C. is exceptional,” explains Ecosmart president and CEO Michel de Spot, one of the main visionaries behind the project.

The solar potential of the sunny Kootenay region of British Columbia is obvious to residents, many of whom moved to, or stayed in the region because of the reliable sunny weather, particularly in Kimberley, a town of 7,500 people.

At 1,120 meters above sea level, it is known as one of the highest elevation municipalities in Canada — high enough to be clear of the dreary inversions that blanket many interior British Columbia valleys with cloud for much of the long winters.

Monitoring activities from 2008 to 2010 showed that Kimberley bakes in the sun for more than 2,150 hours per year, and the sun shines on more than 300 days. This makes the south-facing slope in the Teck lands prime solar power real estate.

With land and capital contributions from Teck, the Province of B.C. Innovative Clean Energy Fund, and a $2 million loan to the City of Kimberley approved by 76 percent of voters, Kimberley’s SunMine project powered up in June 2015.

“EcoSmart convinced us it could be done without any taxpayer money,” explains Kimberley Mayor Don McCormick.

SunMine is the largest solar tracking facility in Western Canada, the largest solar project in British Columbia and the first solar project in the province to sell power directly into B.C. Hydro’s power grid.

After the first full year of operation, the numbers are looking good. The SunMine’s 4,032 solar cells generated 1,681 MWh of electricity, which was just over 87 percent of projected production. The shortfall resulted from the failure of four of the 32 inverters, and delays in finding and installing replacements. Spare inverters have since been purchased and stored at hand to ward off this kind of setback in the future.

In terms of revenue, the SunMine generated 88 percent of projected annual income, due to the aforementioned technical set back. With power shortfall insurance, returns came in at 95 percent of the projected $202,375 annual revenue to the City of Kimberley.

Not bad for year one.

Annual operating expenses came in a sunny 28 percent below expected costs, at $55,203. This left ample revenue to cover loan payments and left more than $12,000 in profits to go toward the City’s SunMine reserve fund.

At peak operation, SunMine powers an estimated 200 Kimberley homes, and can generate nearly $250,000 annually in revenue to help repay the initial $2 million loan, cover operating costs and, hopefully, expand the project in the future.

Thomas Metzler is a local electrician who counts himself lucky to have been part of the project.

“To be part of the largest solar project in western Canada makes me want to do more,” Metzler said. “Thanks to the City of Kimberley’s leadership, we are doing something for our planet, will generate clean energy for our homes, and have taken the first steps for others to follow.”

With acreage and transmission capacity for a 200-fold increase beyond its current size, the project could one day become the largest facility of its kind in the world. SunMine’s partnerships with local colleges as well as a host of other local governments and organizations mean that Kimberley is poised to blaze the trail for solar power production, research and development into the future.

Forward-thinking electricians such as Metzler see the project as a leader that will not only pave the way for more large-scale projects, but also for smaller, home-based solar power generation.

“The cost of solar technology has decreased by 30 to 40 percent over the past four years,” explains Metzler.

With B.C. Hydro’s net metering option, which pays small power producers 9.99 cents per kilowatt-hour, not only can homeowners reduce their power bills to zero, but they can actually begin to pay off their systems.

Smaller producers and the many owners of sunny, south-facing rooftops are waiting for British Columbia to offer more realistic incentives and pricing for small energy producers.

Solar energy has taken off in many parts of the world, but has been slow to catch on in British Columbia, mainly due to a lack of power production incentives. Programs in Ontario pay residents the true costs of power generation and delivery (between 40 and 80 cents per kilowatt-hour), while B.C. will still only pay the heavily subsidized B.C. Hydro rate-payers rate (currently 9.99 cents/kwh), which does not take into account all the costs associated with the generation and delivery of electricity, or the mitigation of impacts associated with power generation, such as endangered species recovery due to river impoundment and valley inundation behind hydroelectric projects.

Nova Scotia offers lucrative incentives for in-home solar hot water heat, home heating and photovoltaic panel installation.

Many hope the SunMine project will help raise the bar and urge B.C. Hydro to encourage more renewable energy sources, ones that help B.C. meet its energy conservation targets while concurrently negating the need for multi-billion dollar investments in mega-projects, such as the controversial Site C hydroelectric dam on the Peace River.

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Countries like Germany, which generates nearly seven percent of its annual energy needs using solar power, and China, Taiwan, Japan, and Italy are leading the way in the production of solar renewable energy, while Canada ranks eighth globally in solar energy production. Canada is well-positioned to take the lead, however, with 30 percent higher solar potential than even Germany.

Kimberley’s SunMine has its own groundbreaking individual power purchase agreement with B.C. Hydro, the first of its kind for a solar project, and one that will bring in over a quarter million dollars annually to help cover the start-up costs and ongoing maintenance of the site.

So far, the SunMine has won a total of six major national and regional sustainability, energy, and innovation awards, including 2017’s Canada Clean 50: Outstanding Contributors to Clean Capitalism, sponsored by TD Bank.

Beyond the project’s accolades and stellar PR returns, Mayor McCormick believes the SunMine was worth the financial risk.

“This project created many firsts, and is definitely outside the usual services associated with a municipality,” McCormick said. “It was an opportunity for Kimberley to rebrand itself as a progressive community. The SunMine is the vehicle to get that message to the world.”

The city is currently seeking a partner to help it move forward towards its vision of expanding the SunMine to eventually power a business park near the facility.

“We are looking to sell the SunMine to a partner with deep enough pockets to expand the facility, ensuring it will make money long term. We then collect taxes, which is really our business model,” McCormick said.

So, who says you can’t teach an old dog new tricks? As a century of hard-rock mining evolves into the next century of sustainable energy innovation, the City of Kimberley knows it can be done. Now, they just have to wait for the rest of the pack to catch up.

This article was originally published by DeSmog Canada and was republished with permission.

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Dave Quinn is an award-winning writer and photographer based in Kimberley, B.C. A wildlife biologist and wilderness guide by training, Dave has spent many years studying endangered and threatened species such as mountain caribou, grizzly, fisher, swift fox, and lynx, as well as leading expeditions in the Canadian High Arctic, Rocky Mountains, and West Coast, Greenland and Patagonia. When not in the wild, Dave writes about wilderness and about positive societal change that helps envision a future of our wild legacy. 

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