Going Solar at Sun Mine

Roy Hales

solar panelsKimberly’s city council has a history of embracing innovation. They rebranded Kimberly “the Bavarian city of the Rockies” once it became apparent the Sullivan mine was going to run out. Further ventures into tourism led to the acquisition of the local ski hill and construction of what is now one of Canada’s 10 top golf courses. Both of these projects have since been sold. The city was ready for something new when Michel de Spot, CEO of Vancouver’s Ecosmart Foundation, approached them in 2008. He said the former Sullivan mine is the perfect site for a utility scale solar project.

SunMine has more solar potential than any other location in the province. It is normally above the clouds, on a south-facing slope that receives 300 days of sunshine a year. As PV solar becomes more efficient at lower temperatures, SunMine will produce results similar to California’s. “This has the potential to become the biggest solar project in North America,” said de Spot. Though the usages of an old mine site are limited, it was perfect for a solar facility. The costly high capacity transmission lines and substations, which SunMine would need, were already built. As the site is a brownfield area, there will be no damages to the local ecosystem.

Kevin Wilson, Kimberly’s Economic Development Officer, thinks of this project as part of the next stage of Western Canada’s development. The era of mass resource extraction seems to be ending. SunMine provides a renewable alternative.

Seventy-eight per cent of the population agreed in a city referendum to decide if they would borrow $2 million to get the project started.

The mining company got involved. It had been known as Teck Cominco sometime after operations in the Sullivan mine began during the early 1900s. Teck still has an office in Kimberly, from which it manages dormant mines throughout North America. Teck agreed to lease the old Sullivan site to the city at no cost, and contributed another $2 million towards developing the project.
“For Teck, I think this is about their legacy and the long term evolution of the community,” said Wilson.  
“This is exactly the type of forward-thinking project the Innovative Clean Energy Fund was created to help support,” said Minister of Energy and Mines Bill Bennett.

The province of British Columbia contributed $1 million, which meant the only money Kimberly has to repay is its $2 million mortgage.

Construction began last April. SunMine was built on six acres of the old mine site. There are over 4,000 solar-cell modules, mounted on 96 solar trackers which follow the sun’s movement, maximizing solar exposure. It will briefly be Western Canada’s largest operational solar project, but that honour will soon pass to a 6 MW solar thermal solar project in Medicine Hat.

SunMine is the first utility scale solar project in BC to sell power to the BC Hydro grid. It has a contract to provide up to 2 MW of electricity to the grid. Michel de Spot said the site could provide 200 MW.

This could make SunMine the largest solar project in North America, but would also require a substantial investment. The 11 cents a kWh BC Hydro is likely to pay is not sufficient to finance further expansion. Wilson believes they could do it if they were receiving 13 cents a kWh. “I think BC Hydro would be interested in purchasing more energy if the terms were suitable,” said Wilson.

BC Hydro could develop Site C for less, unless you factor in the damages to the Peace River area. Thousands of acres of what appears to be the province’s best farmland would be drowned. There would be considerable damage to local habitat and wildlife. According to terms of Treaty #8, local First Nations are promised the use of land that will be submerged “as long as the sun shines, the grass grows and the river flows.”
SunMine will go online early in 2015.

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Roy Hales is editor of the ECOReport: www.theecoreport.com

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