The largest solar panel installation North of 60 began officially turning sunshine into electricity in Fort Simpson last week.
The $770,000 project, installed by SkyFire Energy, is a pilot project for the Northwest Territories Power Corporation (NTPC) in an attempt to partially wean the 1,200-person community off diesel.
Located near the Fort Simpson airport, the solar installation promises to displace 58,000 kilowatt hours (kWh) of diesel generation per year, providing at least 8.5 per cent of the minimum power requirements for the community during summer with its 258 panels.
“That’s equivalent to 15,000 litres of diesel fuel and 44.5 tonnes of CO2 per year,” said Michael Miltenberger, the minister in charge of NTPC. “It will be able to provide energy for up to 10 houses.”
The solar ray, which is the length of a football field and 13 feet off the ground, is larger than any existing in Saskatchewan, Alberta or the territories.
Miltenberger said Fort Simpson was chosen strategically for its location and energy needs.
“Up until Inuvik went back on full diesel, Simpson was the largest diesel-powered community in the North,” he said. “It has some of the best sun in the country, bar none. And it is, as well, a large community where we have folks around with NTPC to be able to service and keep an eye on this whole process, on the construction side both now and as it’s running, as well as to be able to assess the success of the project going forward.”
Whether or not the same initiative will be taken in every community in the NWT will depend on how successful the Fort Simpson ray is economically, said Miltenberger, but constant improvements in technology mean solar energy is certainly in the future for the territory.
“There’s clearly great potential for solar,” said Miltenberger. “As we get good at this and as the price of diesel continues to rise and the costs of solar continue to come down, economics improve daily. All those factors are constantly working in favour of making this type of installation a thing to do.”
Northern energy consultant Jack Van Camp of Stand Alone Energy said that while the Fort Simpson project is a small move in the right direction, the territory has a lot of catching up to do in the world of solar if consumers want to avoid paying for rising energy prices.
“In the NWT we’ve been dragging our feet,” he said. “Basically, we’re taking baby steps when we should be taking giant steps.”
Van Camp said the price of solar has dropped 30 per cent in the last year alone, thanks to increased manufacturing of cheap panels in China, along with a major push in the US to make solar the cheapest energy available within the next five years.
‘NWT dragging its feet on solar’
“The cost of solar is continuing to decrease across the board and the cost of everything else is increasing,” said Van Camp. “We’re seeing now the Power Corp.’s putting in for another major increase in their rates. Well, at some point those two curves intersect as the price of solar decreases and the price of everything else increases – there’s a cross-over. That’s happened in the Northwest Territories already in all of the diesel communities, and with this new increase over the next four years, solar will be cheaper than hydro in Fort Smith.”
He predicts rising hydro rates for the Taltson dam, which supplies Fort Smith’s energy, will be over 20 cents per kWh after the 26 per cent NTPC rate hike – nearly the amount that Yellowknife pays currently – while the long-term levelized cost of solar will be at least 30 per cent less. The cost of solar power is currently around 16 cents per kWh.
“It used to be that solar didn’t make a lot of economic sense in Fort Smith because we had such cheap hydro here, but that’s not going to be the case anymore,” said Van Camp. “Already, right now, it’s just about at break-even.”
Van Camp recommends that the government begin placing solar in diesel communities first to cut costs immediately.
“Every kilowatt hour that we can generate and use in a diesel community is going to save money, up to probably 20 per cent of the total generation,” he said. “If you do it right and you use the subsidies that are available, you can do it in a way that saves money today.”
The NWT government is in the process of developing a solar strategy for the territory. Currently $60 million is earmarked for subsidizing alternative energy projects in the territory, like the Simpson solar ray, through the Energy Priorities Framework.