Sun power rises at St. Albert Transit depot

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St. Albert’s electric buses will be powered by the sun as early as next week now that the city’s biggest solar array has been built in Campbell Park.

SkyFire Energy technicians were putting the finishing touches this week on the $500,000 solar array now atop the Campbell Park bus depot (a.k.a. the Dez Liggett Transit Facility).

The project is on schedule and should be online by about the middle of this week, said SkyFire general manager Trevor DeHaan, who lives in St. Albert and is supervising the work.

Once operational, the 301 kilowatt system will potentially generate enough electricity to run 44 homes and prevent some 189 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions each year, said David Vonesch, SkyFire’s chief operating officer.

That will cover about a third of the bus depot’s electricity use even once you account for that used by the city’s new electric buses, said city environment manager Leah Kongsrude.

“That’s really the cool part,” she said.

“Our buses are going to run on sunshine.”

While you can’t see the panels from the ground, the city plans to put up a sign at the depot indicating their presence, Kongsrude said.

A 2016 energy audit of 11 city-owned buildings found that buildings accounted for about 56 per cent of St. Albert’s corporate emissions, Kongsrude noted. The report made a number of recommendations on how the city could save energy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions at these sites.

“One of the low hanging fruits was putting solar panels on some of our buildings,” she said, as it could reduce the city’s energy costs and emissions from coal-fired power plants.

The bus depot system consists of 753 solar modules each rated at 400 watts, and covers about 60 per cent of the depot’s roof, Vonesch said.

The array will be the biggest in St. Albert once operational, dwarfing the 54 kW, 216-module system atop Alberco Construction in the Riel Business Park, confirmed Alberco president Ron Simonsmeier.

As is typical for rooftop systems, the modules are held down by concrete weights rather than bolts and engineered to withstand serious winds, DeHaan said. The weights eliminate the need to drill bolt-holes in the roof and will let the city rearrange the modules if needed.

DeHaan said he was proud that this project would help power the city’s three electric buses, which he and his family often saw drive by their home.

“I pointed out to my daughter that pretty soon these are going to run on solar,” he said.

“Now she’s going around the neighbourhood telling everyone!”

More sun to come

There are now some 2,035 operational solar PV systems in Alberta that collectively generate up to 20 megawatts a year, reports Gordon Howell of the Solar Energy Society of Alberta, who tracks the state of Alberta’s solar industry. The number of systems in Alberta has grown by about 72 per cent a year since 2008.

“Solar is becoming more known,” he explained, especially as the price plummets and provincial rebate programs kick in.

“Lots of people are phoning up saying ‘We want it, period.’ No question about economics or paybacks or anything.”

Public buildings are particularly good sites for solar as they are large (which allows for bigger, more economical systems) and stick around for decades (which lets you amortize the cost for longer), Howell said.

Vonesch said the new provincial rebate programs have meant a business boom for SkyFire, which now has six crews in the field each day.

“Our biggest challenge has been keeping up, to be honest.”

Kongsrude said the city was poised to get up to $125,000 in rebates from the province for the transit centre system. The city will also propose a $2-million array atop Servus Credit Union Place in the 2018 budget.

The city will officially unveil the panels next spring, Kongsrude said.

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Kevin Ma

Kevin Ma joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2006. He writes about Sturgeon County, education, the environment, agriculture, science and aboriginal affairs. He also contributes features, photographs and video.