By Trevor Busch
The Town of Taber will not be taking advantage of a provincial government program offering incentives for municipal solar projects following a split vote by town council.
At their Sept. 12 regular meeting, council voted 5-2 to accept a report from Solar Optix regarding solar panel options for the town and recommended the town’s Energy Conservation Committee consider other projects within the town involved with lowering electric consumption. Coun.(s) Joe Strojwas and Laura Ross-Giroux voted in opposition to the motion.
“To me the bottom line is first of all the most important,” said Mayor Henk DeVlieger. “Budgets are already tough to beat, and to me whatever we can do with these funds to save energy, make these buildings more energy efficiency and use less, and once you have that exhausted, then you can start looking at alternate energies — because most alternate energies cost more than tapping it from the grid. It’s just a fact of life. For me, as a representative of the people, I want to do what’s best financially for the Town of Taber. And to me, that’s first cut down as much as possible on consumption, and then look at the next steps.”
The Town of Taber receives annual franchise fee revenue from ATCO Gas and Fortis Alberta, and has assigned 7.5 per cent of that annual revenue to be utilized for the reduction of energy consumption in town-owned buildings and other areas. There is $334,993.13 set aside in the town’s energy conservation fund. The Alberta government currently has a grant program for municipal solar projects, the Alberta Municipal Solar Program, which provides financial rebates to municipalities who install solar photovoltaics.
“The technological advancements in solar in the last three years are amazing,” said Coun. Rick Popadynetz. “You can get solar steel that you can put on the side of a building, so that when you redo your entire roof it’s part solar, and the inverters are coming. They don’t give us the specs on inverters, but they give us the construction cost. Looking at the old panels of three years ago, the technology has become so advanced in the last three years, it’s hard to go forward with a project such as this because its three years behind if we go just with solar panels.”
Taber has some of the longest sun-filled days in Canada, which as of yet is a largely untapped resource that is also renewable. Solar technology has improved exponentially in recent years, making solar panels more efficient than in the past. The Energy Conservation Committee contacted Solar Optix to undertake an analysis of town-owned buildings and properties to assess the best possible projects to reduce consumption.
“With regards to what Councillor Popadynetz says, we’ve got to start somewhere,” said Coun. Laura Ross-Giroux. “We’d be forever waiting three years, three years, three years to catch up to technology, it’s not going to happen. Computers are outdated every three months. So you’ve got to start somewhere. I would love to get us started with something like this. Just baby steps.”
Solar Optix’s report, Budgetary Solar Analysis for the Town of Taber, identified four projects that could benefit from solar energy installations, including the Ken McDonald Memorial Sports Park irrigation service ($26,288), northside reservoir ($94,900), Aquafun Centre ($225,435) and the sewage treatment plant ($2,499,250).
Potential projects were evaluated based on public appeal, simple payback, budget, and long-term benefit.
As part of their analysis, Solar Optix visited each site and measured roof/ground space, structural integrity of buildings, and limitations (if any) of the existing electrical services.
“I think we have to ask ourselves two questions,” said DeVlieger. “One is what do we want to accomplish? Do we want to save energy and make our bottom line better? Or do we want to show the world that we are becoming power-friendly? Those are two separate questions. I know that solar panels have a lifespan of 20 to 25 years, so it’s not all just profit. Personally I would like to see first, why don’t we look at how can we save on consuming energy in the town by changing all our light fixtures, maybe look at certain motors or other equipment that are more efficient and use a lot less power, which means we’re going to cut down on our kilowatts. Because that’s what we’re paying for, kilowatts, and attached to that is your line charges. So what is our goal here? Is it trying to save the bottom line of the town, or do we want to become energy-friendly to the world?”
The report went on to note that, based on price alone, the Taber Aquafun Centre would be the best return on investment, partly due to the fact that 100 per cent of the solar generated power would remain on site instead of being sold back to the grid. The most attractive site in terms of visibility and public awareness, the south-facing exposure of a potential array on the building would be seen by literally thousands, if not tens of thousands, of individuals passing through the community on Highway 3. According to the report, proposed improvements to the Aquafun Centre would represent an annual energy cost savings of $10,758 in year one, which would be estimated to rise to an annual savings of $51,675 by year 21.
“Mr. Mayor, I agree with what you’re saying. I think you have to look at the concern and opposition, it’s too soon to go with solar,” said Coun. Jack Brewin. “The technology is just on the edge of breaking through to being very good maybe. I’ve spoken to some Ontario Hydro people, asking them how much their solar projects have saved them, and it’s not quite good as you’d think. I think if you conserve energy, such as motors for slow starts and things like that, it’s much more efficient than spending money on solar panels. We don’t see insurance costs worked into this, or any maintenance — I’d say it’s very expensive. Being that Taber’s an oil and gas town, I would just as soon promote something that conserves oil and gas a bit better, and not go after this solar, or wind. It just doesn’t prove in the end to be viable.”
In terms of future impact, however, the report indicated the sewage treatment plant would provide the best benefit to the community, based on scale alone. While not as physically prominent as the Aquafun Centre, it would make for an excellent marketing opportunity. As an example, Corona, Calif., recently installed a 1MW solar array for their sewage facility. According to the report, proposed improvements to the sewage treatment plant would represent an annual energy cost savings of $80,395 in year one, which would be estimated to rise to an annual savings of $137,651 by year 21.
As for the remaining projects, Solar Optix asserted the northside reservoir has public visibility and reasonable return on investment, while the Ken McDonald Memorial Sports Park irrigation service would have the least impact financially, and would have great exposure for the public. According to the report, proposed improvements to the northside reservoir would represent an annual energy cost savings of $2,874 in year one, which would be estimated to rise to an annual savings of $4,721 by year 21; while proposed improvements to the Ken McDonald Memorial Sports Park irrigation service would represent an annual energy cost savings of $790 in year one, which would be estimated to rise to an annual savings of $1,368 by year 21.
“One thing I never thought should be included is some sort of wind turbine in our community,” said Popadynetz. “I believe our wind is some of the strongest in North America, so solar and wind, complementing each other. I just want to caution everybody. It’s a great project, and I know we need to go forward with energy efficiency, but every three years there’s a new electrical code, and there’s been some major technological advances in solar. So we need to look at that prior to tendering this out, or even going forward with this project.”
The Energy Conservation Committee’s terms of reference outlines that energy conservation projects for the town are to be explored, with recommendations made to council for a final decision on projects to be implemented. Five administrative staff members currently sit on the committee, which would be responsible for tendering and ensuring the implementation of selected projects. According to administration, with the projected rise in energy costs associated with the planned shutdown of coal-powered generators in Alberta, the Town of Taber should be looking for ways to mitigate any projected increase in expenses. As there is currently a push to move towards more renewable energy sources, administration pointed out the Town of Taber has an opportunity to be a municipal leader in solar implementation.
Curiously, Strojwas attacked the report’s appearance and aesthetics rather than its contents.
“In the front of their pamphlet, laying out those solar panels there, any solar panels that I’ve seen laid out in any complex — and I’ve seen them down in the States and in Japan — they’re quite closely monitored and put together so that they come to the point where they almost overlap each other to save on land distribution, whereas here you can see they’re several metres apart, which I think probably a solar company should re-design their front page so it’s a little more enhancing. The aesthetics look good from here, but it’s not the way it’s done.”
Administration’s recommended motion, which was declined by town council, asked that council accept the report and recommend to the Energy Conservation Committee that consideration of the Aquafun Centre solar project be prioritized.