Northern Alberta Institute of Technology

Is Alberta’s solar industry ready to step into the light?

In march of last year, Clifton Lofthaug (Electrical Engineering Technology ’04) headed to Toronto to accept an award from CanSIA, the country’s solar-energy industry association.

He was there to represent Edmonton’s Mosaic Centre, Canada’s first net-zero energy commercial building. His company, Great Canadian Solar, designed and installed an innovative 213-kilowatt solar array on the building. At the awards gala, Lofthaug struck up a conversation with the indigenous man sitting next to him.

It turned out that the Ontario First Nation the man belonged to had just installed a solar array on their reserve. Lofthaug asked how big it was and when the man said nine megawatts, Lofthaug started to laugh. “What’s so funny about that?” the man asked. Nothing, Lofthaug replied. “You just have more solar than the entire province of Alberta.”

Clifton Lofthaug, owner of Great Canadian Solar, one of Alberta's oldest solar power companies.That may be about to change.

After decades of being treated like a pipe dream by the province and its primary economic driver, the oil and gas industry, Alberta’s solar industry appears to be on the verge of becoming a viable option for homeowners and small businesses across the province. Companies like Lofthaug’s are leading the charge.

Despite being founded in 2009, Edmonton-based Great Canadian Solar is already one of the longest-running solar companies in the province. In those early days, Lofthaug was driven in part by idealism.

He knew that even if the public demand wasn’t quite there yet – nor was the cost of the technology – renewable energies like solar were worthy pursuits on the strength of their environmental friendliness alone.

And sure enough, things got busier. “The phone just started ringing more. We started getting more emails. I knew people were looking for this product.”

Lofthaug’s first big fish was the solar contract for a family apartment building that, at 33 kW, was the largest grid-connected photovoltaic power system in northern Alberta at the time. That was in 2011. Today, Great Canadian Solar just wrapped up installing a two-part solar array on the roof of the Leduc Recreation Centre that is, again, the biggest project Lofthaug has ever worked on – this one at 1.14 MW. In just five years, the definition of “big” for solar projects in Alberta has grown by a factor of more than 30.

A great place for solar

Alberta is actually a very good place to build solar arrays. According to Statistics Canada, the province, particularly the south, receives more than 2,300 hours of sunlight each year – more than every province but Saskatchewan.

“We’ve always been this major energy producer in the hydrocarbon sphere,” says Dr. Jim Sandercock, chair of the Alternative Energy Technology program. “But, in fact, from the perspective of wind and solar, Alberta and Saskatchewan are the best possible producers because the solar levels are so high.”

Sandercock points out that Edmonton and Hamburg, in Germany (the world’s largest producer of solar power), both sit at 53 degrees latitude north.

“But if you took a solar panel and you set it up identically in both cities, it would produce 60 per cent more electricity in Alberta, because we get more sunlight and we’re slightly cooler.” Even factoring in the loss in efficiency when panels are covered with snow during the winter, Alberta could easily draw far more energy from the sun, per panel, than the leading solar-producing jurisdiction.

A brief history of solar power

The solar industry began in the 1960s, when NASA designed some of the earliest solar panels as part of the U.S. space program. These panels were expensive, not to mention inefficient by today’s standards. Early solar panels also contained toxic chemicals like arsenide, which made the idea of adapting them for terrestrial use unrealistic.

Nevertheless, groups of homesteaders in sunny Northern California saw the NASA panels and decided they wanted to use this technology to power their off-grid home electrical systems. That’s when the first non-toxic solar panels were developed. But, for the next few decades, solar would remain a niche interest. It wasn’t until 2001, when Germany introduced development incentives, that solar moved from being a hobby into a full-fledged industry.

Canada didn’t enter the solar field until 2009, when Ontario started offering its own incentive program. Alberta is expected to officially join the fray when the provincial government’s Energy Efficiency Agency gives its recommendations, which are expected to include solar energy, this spring.

In general, though, Alberta’s solar industry lags behind even the rest of Canada, which was itself a late adopter. Percentage-wise, Alberta’s solar industry has been growing by double digits every year for the past five years, Sandercock says. “But it’s starting from a very small base.”

To date, Alberta has installed approximately 10 MW of solar across the entire province. By contrast, Ontario, the leading Canadian province, will reach 2,500 MW by year’s end.

But Alberta may benefit from the fact that many of the barriers that the solar industry faced in its early years have been greatly reduced.

Take costs: since 2009, the price of installing a solar array has dropped by approximately 70 per cent. For one of the first systems Lofthaug installed, the panels cost $1,000 each; today, he says, the same panels would run about $250 each.

Even when you factor in the current overproduction in Alberta’s electricity industry, which has driven prices abnormally low, solar is still a competitive, if not cheaper, option for many projects.

That trend is expected to continue, especially as the province phases out its coal-fired power plants over the next decade and envisions 30 per cent of the province’s electricity coming from renewable sources by 2030.

Meanwhile, a growing public awareness of the environmental impact of the oil sands means that consumers are more willing than ever to seek out renewable energy sources whenever they can.

The final major piece of the puzzle, however, is support from government.

From Germany to Ontario, solar industries have been able to get the jump-start they needed only when their local governments introduced incentive programs.

Here in Alberta, companies like Lofthaug’s were heartened by the recent change in government, with the new NDP clearly amenable to renewables. As part of the Notley government’s Climate Leadership Plan, the Energy Efficiency Agency is currently looking at ways the province can support community energy programs, including solar.

The panel is expected to report its findings soon, with the resultant programs rolling out in early 2017.

Clifton Lofthaug at Edmonton's Mosaic Centre, the net-zero office building for which he designed and installed at 213-kW solar power system.A leg up

For an industry as new as solar, runaway growth can also be cause for concern.

“Alberta’s just at the beginning, in many ways, of some very fast growth,” says Rob Harlan, executive director of the Solar Energy Society of Alberta and an occasional instructor at NAIT. “And that in itself is very challenging.”

Harlan has been part of the industry since the 1970s. He hopes that whatever form the pending government support takes, it is intended to grow the province’s solar industry in ways that are healthy and, more importantly, sustainable over the long term.

An ambitious incentives program may bring a huge number of new companies to the fore but Harlan advises that those programs also be reviewed and updated over time to allow companies to properly compete in the market. The alternative could be susceptibility to collapse should those incentives suddenly disappear, as is starting to be seen in Ontario.

Here, too, Alberta may have a leg up on its competitors.

“In many ways Alberta is in a good position because what we’re trying to do has already been done around the world,” Harlan says. “Mistakes have been made. Successes have happened. We just need to become more educated and proceed. And we have the resources here that are the envy of many other jurisdictions.”

Companies like Lofthaug’s are already reaping the benefits. Great Canadian Solar is up to 20 staff and, depending on how the government chooses to support the industry, he has no shortage of exciting projects on the horizon.

Asked where the company is at today, six years into its lifespan, Lofthaug chuckles and says, “Oh man. Decades ahead of where I thought I’d be. [When I started] I didn’t know whether I’d even be able to work in this industry full time. To have this amount of staff and office space and trucks – it’s neat to see it all come together.”

He’s confident that, given the right approach by the provincial government, Alberta’s solar industry could one day support thousands of employees, with huge rooftop arrays like the one in Leduc going up all around the province. Indeed, the government’s recently announced target of producing 30 per cent of Alberta’s electricity from renewable resources by 2030 could employ more than 7,200 people as projects are built.

Ultimately, Lofthaug says, his dream is for solar to be the default – so common that you only notice it when it’s not there. “If you ever travel through California,” he says, “there’s solar everywhere: on people’s houses, on schools, on buildings. It’s not a rarity.

“Instead of walking by and thinking, ‘Wow, that’s a solar array!’ it’d be nice if it swung the other way, where you see a roof and think, ‘I wonder why they don’t have solar on it.’”

Solar in Saddle Hills

For Brian Krest (Electronics Engineering Technology ’85), it was as simple as running the numbers.

Krest, a manager and engineer at ATCO Group of Companies (focused on energy, logistics and more), was looking at a remote telecommunications site about 90 minutes northwest of Grande Prairie that needed more power. Originally, the Saddle Hills project was run off of a series of small thermal-electric generators, but those didn’t have the capacity to match the new demand. 

So Krest looked at his options. The company could run a full-time gas generator or it could build a dedicated distribution line out to the site. But these were deemed too expensive.

In the end, the cheapest option was solar.

“We just happened to hit the right time, where the prices had dropped enough so that what was technically possible could now become economically possible,” Krest says. Whether in terms of operations, or maintenance, or even upfront costs, solar won out on all counts – and his bosses were as excited as he was. “Once we showed [ATCO] the numbers, I was really quite surprised with the level of support we got,” he says.

The Saddle Hills project, which was developed with input from students in NAIT’s Alternative Energy Technology program, could prove to be a model for the province’s solar industry as a whole. It’s the first large-scale solar photovoltaic project ATCO has attempted. With a daily generation rate of 75 kilowatt hours (enough in a day to power an average Alberta home for three months), it’s also the largest off-grid system in Western Canada.