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Solar simmering in Ontario

There’s been a lot of solar power project construction going on in Ontario, and RES Americas has been busy in the Canadian province, recently completing two 10-MW projects for SunEdison Newboro 1 and 4.

By Diane Mettler

A solar building boom is taking place in the Canadian province of Ontario. About two dozen large solar projects are going ahead, in addition to an existing 70+ large solar facilities in the province. Two of the newest solar power facilities—Newboro 1 and 4—are just a few kilometers apart, and the two 10-megawatt facilities began generating power this fall. 

The reason behind the boom is Ontario’s public policy on renewable power, or FIT (“feed in tariff”) program. Significantly higher prices are paid for electricity generated from wind, solar, and other clean sources. 

Bart Geleynse, senior business development manager of RES Americas, the company responsible for the construction of the two Newboro facilities for SunEdison, says the sites were chosen for reasons of favorable land usage and proximity to the grid. 

RES Americas stepped in as EPC in October 2013 and, as is typical in projects like these, there was a significant amount of engineering upfront and time involved to finalize designs. “The real construction commenced early in the new year,” says Geleynse. “And although Newboro 1 and 4 tracked pretty close together, they were always treated as two separate projects.”

Since construction began in January, Geleynse and his team anticipated building in harsh winter conditions, but no one expected the brutal winter of 2014, with temperatures dropping below -25 Celsius (around -13 Fahrenheit)—cold enough to keep hydraulic fluid from flowing. 

Low temperatures were not the only challenge. When winter turned to spring, the team had to handle thawing ground and water from snowmelts. That meant coping with water mitigation and dealing with mud that stalled traffic to the site, and it put pressure on RES Americas to continue installing foundations. 

“You know Ontario has harsh winters when frost heave and snow load govern design on a lot of these projects,” says Geleynse. “But it was a challenge that we were hired to overcome. It’s not new to us. Given the number of projects that have to be built and within the timelines prescribed, it’s unavoidable that some are constructed through the winter.” 

Throughout construction, the one thing that can’t be overstated is RES Americas’ commitment to safety. “That’s absolutely top priority for us,” says Geleynse. “When we look at building projects through the winter, we need to uphold a certain standard of safety and that’s often the threshold. If it can’t be done safely, then we can’t do it.”

The Newboro 1 and 4 solar power projects in Ontario both use the same technology. The racking was supplied by Unirac, and the SMA inverters are built into EnerQuest I-Houses or inverter houses. Each project used approximately 55,000 MEMC PV modules supplied by SunEdison.

 

The positive side of the cold climate is that PV modules perform better in clear, cold conditions. “The challenge a solar farm faces in the winter is shorter days and the fewer hours of solar irradiance in a given day, as well as snow accumulation, which of course inhibits production.” 

The biggest challenge with the Newboro project was not the winter weather or the remote location—about 75 miles southwest of Canada’s capital city, Ottawa. Instead, it was finding the right resources at the right time.

During the height of construction, there were approximately 180 to 200 people on the two sites. Forty percent of that workforce was locally sourced—one of the FIT requirements. 

Geleynse explains the situation many projects ran into, including Newboro 1 and 4.

“The FIT program in some ways became a victim of its own success. It was implemented to streamline the development process and bring more projects to fruition sooner with the intent to create a local manufacturing sector, create jobs, and birth an Ontario-based industry. 

“The trouble was that a lot of contracts were awarded, but the permitting process saw many projects being delayed between contract award and start of construction. Each of those contracts essentially had a ticking clock, and that caused a lot of projects to be built on top of each other and in a short time. 

Add on a layer of local content requirements built into the FIT program to help provide a more secure marketplace to encourage manufacturers to invest and set up shop.”

The result was numerous big construction projects and a limited amount of local resources available to meet the 40 percent requirement. Where others unfortunately failed, RES Americas succeeded by investing in a “knowledge transfer”. 

 
 The solar modules for the Newboro 1 and 4 projects are on a fixed tilt of 28 degrees, which is common for most solar projects in southern Ontario.
  

“We brought in the knowledge and skillset we have built from building eight gigawatts of projects worldwide, to the local work force,” says Geleynse. “And we taught local contractors how to do work safely.”

Training a workforce was costly, but RES plans to maximize the workforce investment on future projects. “Ask any module manufacturer who has taken advantage of the FIT program whether or not the renewable energy industry is bigger than Ontario’s borders, and they’ll rightly argue that it is,” explains Geleynse. 

“They see themselves now as more of an exporter of local construction activity in the solar sector. And RES Americas will be leveraging its expertise, the experience it has gained in Ontario, and the relationships it’s built with other global players working in Ontario to further solar development and construction globally.” 

Newboro 1 and 4 both use the same technology. The racking was supplied by Unirac, and the SMA inverters are built into EnerQuest I-Houses or inverter houses. The pile material was sourced directly from Atlas Tube in Ontario, and each project used approximately 55,000 MEMC PV modules supplied by Sun-Edison. The modules are on a fixed tilt of 28 degrees, which is common for most projects in southern Ontario. 

There was one other piece of innovative technology used that you won’t see anywhere else—RES Americas’ first ever dynamic DC switching mechanism. 

“Newboro 1 and 4 have a unique DC to AC ratio,” explains Geleynse. “The two 10-MW AC projects have a very high DC overbuild condition, which made them perfect projects to implement the DC switching concept, where we can dynamically adjust the DC that the inverters are exposed to. In cases of particularly high irradiance, we can switch out some of the DC input and thereby keep the inverters running in optimal condition. 

 
  

“The SMA inverters are capable of handling a fair bit of DC input on the back side, so this is more for those rare cases where you have a very high irradiance, probably coupled with very cold conditions,” adds Geleynse. “That’s when the modules produce the highest voltage. And, as far as I know, it’s the first time it has been implemented in practice.”

The solar boom created over the last three years is going to be slowing down. Geleynse says now it will be a competitive tender process. Ontario Power Authority will procure a set amount of megawatts in a competitive tender for both solar and wind, and they’re looking to procure 140 MW of solar, both in a first round in 2015 and a subsequent round a year later. 

“So, there will be more utility-scale solar. We won’t see a pipeline like we saw in the past, but it will be more measured, presumably more predictable,” says Geleynse. “And we will have that added element of cost competition, which certainly doesn’t hurt, but the supply chain needs to sharpen its pencil and learn to operate in a competitive environment. We all want to get to a point where solar is competitive with other conventional sources of generation.”

As the solar market evolves, RES Americas is prepared. One of the ways it sets itself apart from many of the other companies is integrating engineering, construction management, and procurement under one roof.

“All of our engineering is done in-house, and our engineers share the same office space, whether it’s our solar engineers, civil, electrical, or structural. We don’t farm it out,” says Geleynse.

He adds, “At the same time, it’s very important that procurement is tuned into the process right from the beginning, so that when you’re engineering these jobs, you know what is available in the marketplace, you understand the supply chain, and then our construction management is also under the same roof.” 

RES Americas believes in having their engineers visit the sites often. It is important that they interact closely with construction teams so they know for certain what is feasible—in short, what’s buildable and what’s not. 

“That gets fed back, as well, into the system,” says Geleynse. “That understanding of what it takes to actually build a project is all under one roof. And it means that RES Americas offers a pretty streamlined and effective package to a customer or an end owner.”

Although Newboro 1 and 4 were big projects, they are just a portion of what the company has constructed in Ontario. RES Americas is wrapping up work on five other projects—two have been SunEdisonprojects (Rutley and Norfolk), and three are Canadian Solar projects. RES Americas has just commenced construction on the sixth project, another for Canadian Solar. The six will total 60 MW, with a total portfolio for RES Americas of 80 MW in the region.

“The team’s quite busy in Ontario,” says Geleynse. “There’s no question about it.”

 


November/December 2014