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Mountain Town News: Mine property now mines solar energy

Summit Daily (Frisco, CO)

August 8,2015

KIMBERLEY, B.C. - With its tumbling creeks and fast-moving rivers, British Columbia gets 97 percent of its electricity from clean-energy sources, mostly hydro. Now, a new 1.05-megawatt solar installation at Kimberley has diversified the province's energy portfolio.
The city of 7,600 people is located in the foothills of the Purcell Mountains, about a 90-minute drive from the U.S. border and about two hours from Alberta. It now has a tourism-based economy, based partly on a local ski area but also proximity to Fernie, about an hour and a half away. It used to be a mining town, as the Sullivan Mine had been the largest lead-zinc producer in the world before closing in 2001.

Some 4,032 solar modules have now been installed on that former mining property. The panels are attached to trackers, which follow the daily progress of the sun, the first large-scale solar facility in Canada to use the technology. The German-engineered trackers allow the panels to generate as much as 38 percent more energy than fixed panels.

Teck Resources Ltd., the owner of the mining property, provided the land as well as a $2 million contribution. By a wide margin, Kimberley voters in 2011 approved borrowing $2 million to be used for the solar installation, called the SunMine.

Also crucial was a commitment from B.C. Hydro, the province's electrical provider. The agency committed to paying 11 cents a kilowatt-hour for the next 25 years, substantially more than the cost of hydro, says Kevin Wilson, Kimberley's economic development officer.

Wilson says the solar helps diversify British Columbia's power supply. That, in turn, makes the power supply more resilient. Solar will, for example, continue even in times of drought.
Kimberley's solar project may also be a catalyst for other solar projects, perhaps in neighboring Alberta, he says.

According to Alberta Energy, 90 percent of the province's electrical production in 2013 came from either coal or natural gas. But as prices for coal and natural gas fluctuate, solar may eventually be seen as a more stable source, speculates Wilson. The sun maybe doesn't always shine, as solar energy detractors often point out, but it's free and generally reliable. Kimberley, for example, calculates it gets sunshine for at least some part of 300 days per year, the most of any location in British Columbia and on par with Colorado.

For solar to get traction in Alberta, says Wilson, the province will have to provide stronger incentives, probably including a long-time price commitment. Price guarantees can then allow solar developers to get financing.

With a major change in the Alberta government produced by elections in May, many observers predict policies more encouraging of alternative energy. Tellingly, shortly after the elections, several oil companies that help produce oil from the tar sands around Fort McMurray indicated their support of an elevated carbon tax. The province already has a carbon tax of $15 per metric ton, which is now scheduled to increase to $30 per ton by 2017.

British Columbia has a broader carbon tax, first instituted in 2008 at a price of $15 per ton now increased to $30 per ton.

Kimberley leaders have indicated that they may try to expand the solar project. Mayor Don McCormick pointed out that SunMine is relatively small, but there have already been inquiries from prospective partners. Existing panels cover 5 hectares of the property, but there's enough land to support 200 times as much electricity.

As electricity can travel across borders as well as any other commodity, it's possible that electricity markets in other locations, such as in California or Alberta, could conceivably drive future outlays.