Rows of silver brackets— some with solar panels and others without— fill the once vacant field on the site of ATCO’s newest endeavour, one of Western Canada’s largest urban solar projects located in the Barlow region of the city’s southeast.
With a view of the dense cityscape on one side and the mountains on the other, the Barlow project seems well positioned to soak up the sun’s energy. It’s one of two similar sites nearby.
“Three or four months ago when we started construction, it was just a barren field,” says Darcy Fedorchuk, vice president of North American power and renewables with ATCO.
Once reliant on oil and gas, Alberta now stands poised to become Canada’s leader in wind and solar power by 2025.
A recent Globe and Mail article reports current solar projects already account for six per cent of the province’s total energy generation capacity.
Renewable energy sources currently generate 1,088 megawatts of power for Alberta — a target not previously expected until 2033.
Solar projects such as ATCO’s Barlow operation, and a second site in Deerfoot, are helping propel this energy transition, while providing people with the opportunity to choose more sustainable forms of energy.
“We’re really looking to enable and support our customers and the consumers of the province that are looking for that renewable-based energy, that low carbon and no carbon solution,” says Fedorchuk.
Fedorchuk joined the company in January, but began his career in the coal industry — a far cry from the green energy he now champions.
“The irony of the start of my career is I started in the coal mines, worked in coal fire generation,” says Fedorchuk. “Fast forward 28-30 years, and now I have a chance to participate and lead and be part of a renewables business that is enabling that sustainable future.”
Fedorchuk adds how being a part of “the entirety of the energy transition cycle” propelled him to shift his focus to ATCO’s renewables projects.
Capturing solar’s potential
Together, the Deerfoot and Barlow farms approach the size of 170 Canadian football fields, and consist of 175,000 double-sided solar panels Fedorchuk says are capable of neutralizing 68,000 tons of carbon.
All the panels in the projects are bifacial, meaning they capture the sun’s energy on both sides, direct sunlight on the top and reflected sunlight on the bottom. The ability to capture reflected sunlight is essential in the winter, says Fedorchuk, as it can generate an additional 20 to 30 per cent more energy that traditional single-sided panels would lose.
The Deerfoot site is also part of a purchase power agreement (PPA) with Microsoft Corporation, meaning the energy the farm supplies is sold directly to the multinational technology company.
This agreement gives the company the ability “to show evidence that they’re moving down a path of net zero or their own ESG goals,” Fedorchuk says.
Sara Hastings-Simon of the University of Calgary, says PPAs could trigger a kind of ripple-effect introducing other corporations to the possibility of procuring Canadian energy.
“There’s so many markets and only so many we can track and so they may not have been aware that they could make these purchases here, that there was a renewable energy resource in the province,” says Hastings-Simon.
Hastings-Simon stresses how an increase in solar projects like those at ATCO help to make energy transition feel “more real.” She also points out how the projects’ use of repurposed land is an invigorating prospect.
“It’s interesting because it shows how new technologies can take what would previously have been considered not a very useful piece of land, and turn that into something that’s a resource.”
Although solar and other forms of renewable energy are flourishing, there are still countless challenges with integrating new systems into our existing ones.
“When we’re talking about dramatic changes to the way that we produce and consume energy, there’s going to be a lot of barriers to change and kind of almost inertia in the system if you want that close change,” Hastings-Simon says.
Despite these challenges, Fedorchuk is optimistic about the project’s futures and the future of renewables in general.
“It gives me a great deal of satisfaction to know that we’re at this stage and by the end of the year we’ll be producing electricity for our customers.”