TYLER HAMILTON, The Star, April 21, 2008
Ground will be broken today on the first of several massive solar farms expected to dot the Ontario landscape over the coming years, part of the government’s plan to add more renewable power to the province’s energy mix.
Joint venture partners SkyPower Corp. of Toronto and Baltimore-based SunEdison LLC say construction will begin this week on their First Light solar park, located near the town of Stone Mills about 30 kilometres west of Kingston.
The finished park, spreading across 300 acres of land and made up of more than 200,000 sunshine-catching solar panels, will provide enough power over a year to supply 2,000 homes.
SkyPower and SunEdison expect the 19-megawatt project to finish in late 2009, though the first 9 megawatts will likely be in place by the end of this year.
Six more projects from the joint venture are planned across southern Ontario, roughly equivalent to blanketing the entire downtown core of Toronto with solar panels.
“I think Ontario is setting an example for other provinces across Canada to follow,” said Kerry Adler, president and chief executive of SkyPower.
The companies are following through on 20-year contracts signed with the Ontario Power Authority under the province’s standard-offer program. The program pays 42 cents for every kilowatt-hour of electricity produced from a solar system, or roughly seven times the going rate for electricity from the grid.
The power authority has so far struck contracts for 407 megawatts of solar since the program was launched in 2006. At that time, the agency only envisioned about 88 megawatts ever getting built.
“The program has been quite remarkably successful when measured against expectations,” said Tim Taylor, spokesperson for the power authority. “Our hope is that all of them come to fruition, and it’s a wonderful signal to see the work beginning.”
Under program rules, no individual contract can exceed 10 megawatts. It’s for this reason First Light has been broken into two phases.
Brian Robertson, president of SunEdison, said the park is by far the largest in North America under construction, though he admits the bar is rising fast.
“It’s kind of like the world’s tallest building competition,” he said. “It’s tops for the first time until a bigger one comes along.”
That’s likely to happen next month, when OptiSolar Farms Canada begins building its enormous 60-megawatt “Sarnia Solar” park, which will be broken into six construction phases. Vice-president Peter Carrie said the first 10-megawatt phase is expected to be complete by year’s end. “We’ll build out the balance in 2009.”
OptiSolar has a total of 21 multi-megawatt solar projects on the drawing board and approved by the power authority. “This is the year the rubber hits the road for solar in Ontario,” said Carrie.
The company is using solar photovoltaic panels from its U.S. parent OptiSolar Inc., which is manufacturing the product out of facilities in California. SkyPower and SunEdison, meanwhile, plan to use solar panels from First Solar Inc. for the first phase of its project.
Deployment of projects is expected to be fast. After a site is cleared, levelled and fenced in, small teams begin assembling the steel and cement structures that hold the panels in place. Closely behind is a panel-mounting team, followed by an electrical team that connects the panels to the local distribution line.
Just how many of these multi-megawatt projects will get built is the subject of much debate, given the hundreds of millions of dollars in financial commitments involved. But both Carrie and Adler assure that their companies have every intention of following through.
Likewise, SunEdison said it’s committed to the Ontario market. “As a policy we don’t announce things we don’t intend to build,” said Robertson.