A new co-op plans to develop the first community-owned solar farm on the Prairies — a 12-acre block of solar panels to be located in Starland County.
But the ultimate goal is much larger — to create a model that can be replicated across the province.
“We’re excited that we can be a good host to the first project of this kind in Alberta and Western Canada,” said Jordan Webber, economic development officer for Starland County and a director of the Alberta Solar Co-op.
“We’re not just having solar on a home to meet our own load. We’re actually selling all of the power from this project back to the grid. No one has ever done that with solar before, and we’re excited that we’re in a position to lead it.”
Starland County, a rural community of 3,500 located north of Drumheller, has been doing smaller-scale solar projects for two decades. It now has 10 county-owned solar facilities and has provided financial incentives for 15 farmers who have built solar systems.
The proposed 12-acre solar farm is much larger — it will generate one to two megawatts, enough to power 400 homes. To tackle a project of this size, the county created a co-op by partnering with solar experts and developers. Its eight-member board also includes a senior principal at Stantec Consulting, the president of Calgary-based solar developer SkyFire Energy, former Olympic speed-skating medallist Kristina Groves, and Bob Sargeant, a Starland councillor who has two solar installations on his cattle and grain farm.
Alberta Solar Co-op will start selling shares to Alberta residents this month and is also raising money through the crowdfunding website indiegogo, with the goal of raising $5 million.
“From there, we can flip a switch to the green light, do regulatory approvals, and have the installation done and operating by mid-fall 2016,” said Webber.
A key part of the co-op’s pitch is that the cost of solar power has dropped dramatically — it says by 70 per cent in the last four years — and that the Starland initiative will be a model for other Alberta solar projects.
“The vision is that this is something that can be done in any community, at this scale or a smaller scale, whatever fits,” he said. “This is something that everyone can get into.”
Sargeant, who also owns an oilfield services company, has become a solar enthusiast since installing solar panels on his farm three years ago. His two systems each generate about 10 kilowatts of power — one set of panels is attached to the side of a shed and another sits atop a 12-foot-high wooden frame.
He said the declining cost of solar panels and the prospect of rising electricity costs prompted his move to solar.
“Being in the oilfield, I know our costs are going to go up,” said Sargeant. “Power is going to keep climbing. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to know that there’s no other choice but for power to go up.”
He feeds electricity back into the grid, mostly from June to August, when his system produces more power than he can use. Overall, he saves about $6,000 yearly on his power bill and expects the system to pay for itself within seven years — well ahead of the initial payback estimate of 12 years.
More information on the co-op can be found at albertasolarcoop.com.