Southern Alberta city pulls plug on $13-million solar power project

CALGARY — The southern Alberta city of Medicine Hat is pulling the plug on a $13-million concentrated solar power facility after operating it for about five years.

The project’s goal was to test whether the technology was a feasible way to employ the sun’s heat to replace some of the natural gas used to make steam at the city-owned power plant, said Coun. Phil Turnbull, chairman of the city’s utility committee.

The answer, unfortunately, was no, as the project’s small and unreliable contribution to the community’s power needs didn’t justify the cost of maintaining its rows of mirrors and pipes through snowy winters and dusty summer days, he said.

“I think people sometimes look at what we did and say, ‘What a waste of money.’ But it wouldn’t have been a waste if it had been successful in taking it to the next step,” Turnbull said on Thursday.

“Sometimes you win on trying to develop new initiatives and sometimes you don’t.”

The project was to add about one megawatt of power to the 250-MW capacity main power plant but it often didn’t even supply that much, he said.

Meanwhile, the price of natural gas — which the city can source from its utility’s gas wells — has fallen dramatically from when the project was contemplated and is now much more cost-competitive than solar, Turnbull said.

The solar project’s original $9-million cost was shared equally by federal, provincial and city governments, he said. The city stepped up to cover subsequent cost overruns.

Medicine Hat’s experience is consistent with evidence that suggests Canada is too far north and doesn’t get enough uninterrupted sun to make concentrated solar work, said Mike Johnson, technical leader on the energy supply team for the National Energy Board.

For that reason, a recent NEB report he wrote on the economics of solar power in Canada looked mainly at the use of photovoltaic panel systems, which convert the sun’s energy directly into electricity and are much cheaper to build than concentrated solar.

“Medicine Hat, it’s a really sunny climate for Canada, but it’s not quite the same as a place like Nevada,” Johnson said.

In February, the former NDP government granted a 20-year contract to buy power from a partnership that plans to build three new solar power plants for more than $100 million in southern Alberta.

The plants are to produce about 94 megawatts from photovoltaic cells at peak times, enough to power about 20,000 homes.

In Medicine Hat, meanwhile, the utility committee’s next chore is figuring out by next fall what to do with the mothballed project.

Turnbull said suggestions have included selling the gear to industry, donating it to a research college or creating a renewable energy park on the site.

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