“At first it was a bit of a slog getting solar going in Alberta,” says Heather MacKenzie, executive director of Solar Alberta, but “the growth has been exponential in recent years.”
This week, alternative energy sources like solar are front and centre at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland.
‘We have incredible solar potential’
You can see more on solar energy in this week’s edition of Our Edmonton on Saturday at 10 a.m., Sunday at noon and 11 a.m. Monday on CBC TV and CBC Gem.
The not-for-profit Solar Alberta is turning 30 this month and it’s taking stock of that growth, MacKenzie says.
What started as a do-it-yourself solar club has grown to an educational organization with 170 business members supporting a wide range of projects from an egg farm on a Hutterite colony, to solar-powered food trucks, public buildings like the Edmonton Convention Centre and community projects like an Indigenous-owned solar farm in Fort Chipewyan.
In a province dominated by oil and gas, solar makes up only between two and three per cent of the electrical grid, MacKenzie says. But, she adds, “we’re really in a very large growth phase of solar in Alberta right now.”
She says solar contributed 170 MW to the grid in 2020 and by the end of 2023 that number will have jumped to 4,600 MW.
Panels are being used to study the effects of snow on solar production at NAIT’s main campus. (David Bajer/CBC)
It’s really the old story of supply and demand driving larger-scale manufacturing, resulting in a 90 per cent drop in the price of panels in the last decade, says Jim Sandercock, chair of the Alternative Energy Technology program at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology.
“We’re an energy powerhouse and it’s not just in our oil and gas space, it’s also in our renewable space,” Sandercock says.
Interest in solar energy has translated into enrolment, he says.
While many of the students are coming straight out of high school, others are retraining from the oil and gas sector.
Since launching the program in 2011 NAIT has doubled the number of seats from 24 to 48 a year.
Sandercock says Alberta is well positioned with a “stable of engineers and of trades people,” to make the transition to renewable energy sources.
Students from NAIT’s Alternative Energy Technology program assemble a solar panel. (Supplied NAIT)
Robert Hornung, president and CEO of Canadian Renewable Energy Association, believes Alberta is very much the “focal point” for the solar industry in Canada.
While the vast majority of projects are in Ontario, “the area where the most activity is happening today is Alberta and by a significant margin,” he says.
Dropping panel prices and consumer demand are part of the reason, but so are Alberta’s abundant sunshine, its unique electrical market structure and the carbon pricing framework that allows emitters to meet their carbon reduction obligations by supporting solar energy projects, Hornung says.
Hornung believes the climate change targets set out by Canada at gatherings like COP26 “only opens the door to significantly more deployment of solar going forward.”
A roof dotted with solar panels in Edmonton. (David Bajer/CBC)