This article was written by Edward Hsiang
As concerns over Alberta’s oil industry and the impact of global warming are in the spotlight, ‘Greengate Power & Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners’ have begun the construction of the Travers Solar Project, slated to be one of the largest solar farms in North America. It will become the largest of almost a dozen solar projects being constructed in southern Alberta with a projected cost of over 100 million dollars. It will be capable of producing 465-megawatts of power (enough to power 150,000 homes) annually for its 35+ year lifespan (Government of Alberta, 2021).
Greengate chief executive officer, Dan Balaban, called the finalization of the plans a “true win-win for both the environment and the economy,” referring to both the 472,000 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions being offset annually when compared to fossil fuel sources, as well as the generation of local jobs and landowner payments (Journal of Commerce, 2021). However, many might be concerned over the sheer size of the endeavour that pans 3,300 consecutive acres of land, despite the company doing its due diligence in field studies covering wildlife, vegetation, and wetland mapping back in 2017. So just how much of an environmental “win” is this transition towards solar power?
Solar Panels generate current using Photovoltaic (PV) technology. Photons of light hit PV arrays and cause a chain reaction of moving electrons within a PV cell. A strong direct current of constant voltage is produced by lining these cells together. One main environmental concern of solar energy is the upfront cost required to fabricate these PV arrays. Quartz, which must be mined from the earth, is processed into solar grade silicon, then combined with other materials at incredibly high heats to generate silicon semiconductor wafers, encapsulated in EVA plastic and then sandwiched between panes of glass. While the use of silicon means that a lot of carbon is offset from our energy cycle, the mining, processing, and transportation of these components all detract from the positive impact. However, advancements in PV technologies give solar arrays higher efficiencies and lifetimes, leaving the onus on future recycling treatments to offset the high original energy costs. No current plans have been announced on the project website, nor the government of Alberta project page as to what will happen after the 35+ year lifespan of the solar array. “We are not equipped to properly recycle metals and minerals we use in our daily lives, let alone the massive mineral boom coming up with the energy transition demand (EV cars, wind, solar, storage),” says Ugo Lapointe, the Canadian program co-ordinator of Mining Watch Canada, and large-scale recycling centers have only begun to pop up in the U.S. in 2018 (National Observer, 2020). Looking to the EU, electronic products, including solar panels, have been banned from landfills since 2014, and they have a much longer history of recycling PV arrays. If processed properly, around 85% of the solar grade silicon can be recovered, 100% of the metal reused, and 95% of other semiconductor materials reclaimed.
Driving around the Lethbridge area, many wind farms are also clearly seen and offer an alternative energy source. Overall, Alberta’s wind farms generate 1,658 megawatts of energy and rank 3rd in Canada for installed wind capacity. Comparatively, one wind turbine can produce as much power as 48,000 solar panels but are less predictable sources and more challenging to maintain. Currently, seventeen $100+ million wind farm projects are slated to be constructed over southern Alberta, which shouldn’t come as much of a surprise for residents of our windy city. These developments align with Alberta’s pledge to source 30% of the province’s energy to renewable sources by 2030 and are followed by upwards of $2.5 billion in new renewable energy investments (Journal of Commerce, 2021).
On an economic front, Edmonton-based ‘PCL’ will be handling the construction of the Travers solar project, but the 1.3 million solar panels will be provided by Shanghai-based ‘Jinko Solar,’ the largest solar panel provider in the world. This might be surprising considering ‘Canadian Solar’ is based in Guelph and is also an international supplier, but the company has received multiple allegations of unethically sourcing their labour (Globe and Mail, 2021). ‘Amazon’ has also committed to purchase up to 400 megawatts of power from the Travers Solar Project, marking the company’s second renewable energy investment in Canada.