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Solar project stands up to the Canadian cold

Cold weather resilience was critical on a 25 MW solar power project in the Canadian province of Alberta.

By Tony Kryzanowski

The Great Texas Blackout earlier this year was a reminder to all renewable power developers active in the northern United States and Canada not to underestimate the impact that cold weather can have on equipment performance.

That need for resilience is particularly important now that many jurisdictions in North America are becoming more and more dependent on renewables as their primary power source.

Cold weather performance is definitely a priority as solar power development heats up in the Western Canadian province of Alberta. The province is in transition from coal-generated power to more environmentally-friendly power generation alternatives like wind, solar and natural gas. It helps that Alberta has the best solar resource in Canada. But temperatures in winter can easily drop to -40 degrees for more than a week at a time, not to mention at least one or two screaming blizzards per season.

Elemental Energy is a renewable power developer based in the neighboring province of British Columbia, and is keenly aware of that need for cold weather resilience through its past experience developing solar power in Alberta. It also owns solar power installations in such warmer climes as Hawaii, as well as wind farms in the eastern Canadian provinces of Newfoundland and Nova Scotia.

After developing Western Canada's first utility-scale solar project in 2017 in Brooks, Alberta, the company recently took delivery of a 25.4 megawatt (MW) solar power project near the town of Innisfail, in central Alberta, about 70 miles north of Calgary.

And this is only one project that Elemental Energy has on the books in Alberta. They are also developing the 21 MW Chappice Lake solar project near Medicine Hat, the Brooks II 26 MW solar project near Brooks, and also the East Strathmore 20 MW solar project east of Calgary. All are expected to break ground this year.

It is also developing the 10 MW Awasis solar project with a First Nations partner near Regina, in neighboring Saskatchewan.

Elemental Energy contracted GP JOULE Canada Corp to execute the Innisfail project. Describing itself as expert in utility PV systems in northern and rugged conditions, GP JOULE combined its EPC strength with its own proprietary racking solutions to deliver a turnkey project on time and on budget.

"We build our projects with the intent of having them withstand the test of time," says Jamie Houssian, Principal at Elemental Energy. "We definitely had the benefit of applying some of our learnings from Brooks to the Innisfail project. We've been through one winter now at Innisfail and there were some cold spells there. The plant held up pretty well."


It comes as no surprise that Alberta currently generates most of its power from coal—it is a world renowned producer of fossil fuels, and home to the second largest oilsands deposit in the world. But times and the energy market are changing. Tens of thousands of oilpatch jobs have been lost because of a protracted industry downturn.

During the construction phase, the Innisfail Solar project provided more than 100 jobs for this highly skilled though under-employed workforce with plenty of experience working in a harsh winter environment.

The main electrical contractor on the Innisfail project was a company deeply embedded in the province's oilpatch, PTW Energy, which installed components supplied by GP JOULE. Houssian says that the company's employees were not only enthusiastic for work but also eager to apply their skills in a new sector.

Because Alberta is unique in that it operates the only open power market in North America, anyone with the financial wherewithal and planning skills can apply to provincial authorities to construct a renewable power project, and sell its power production directly on the grid. Solar farms constructed for this purpose are called merchant solar facilities because they are not backstopped by a power purchase agreement to a utility or individual client. As such, it was necessary to evaluate every possible angle to determine how to optimize Innisfail Solar for maximum potential revenue generation.

Building this type of solar installation in Alberta was a new experience for Elemental Energy. To date, the company's solar development in the province has been primarily focused on marketing renewable power virtually to corporate clients.

Elemental Energy arrived on the scene in Innisfail in early 2019. The original developer, Longspur Developments, had already successfully completed most of the permitting, with one of the most important being approval from the Alberta Utilities Commission in May 2019.

Houssian says that GP JOULE was a good choice to build the Innisfail Solar farm because they brought considerable experience providing EPC services for northern, cold weather installations and they were eager to take up this challenge.

Construction began in September 2019 and was completed in June 2020 on an aggressive construction schedule that required workplace adjustments and adaptations due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The project was about three-fifths complete when new social distancing guidelines came into effect. GP JOULE says that it was one of the first EPC's in Canada to complete a utility project during the pandemic.


Construction began in September 2019 and was completed in June 2020, an aggressive construction schedule that required workplace adjustments and adaptations due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The project was about three-fifths complete when new social distancing guidelines came into effect.


Its specialty of constructing and delivering solar projects in cold northern climates is supported by its proprietary PHLEGON racking technology.

"Integrating our bench strength and expertise in EPC services for northern markets with our rugged PHLEGON racking technology—suitable for the climate and terrain of the Innisfail project—is what made us a great fit here," says David Pichard, CEO of GP JOULE North America.

Alberta can not only experience extreme cold in winter, but its topography is susceptible to frost heaves because it is situated in the Western Sedimentary Basin which is essentially the bottom of an ancient ocean. The issue of frost heaves can cause racking systems to move and change module angles, unless the system is engineered to take frost heaving into account.

Pichard says that the PHLEGON racking foundation system is engineered to overcome extremes such as damage from frost heaves. This volumetric expansion of the soil can compromise foundation strength and can lead to a complete collapse of the soil structure, resulting in exorbitant rebuild costs. To ensure reliability through froze heave cycles, GP JOULE uses a helical foundation design versus the commonly used I-beam or W-section structures, keeping arrays stable and at their proper angle.

GP JOULE has optimized its PHLEGON racking system for streamlined installation and reduced labor and material costs, while maintaining reliability in tough climates and terrains.

It has the ability to customize each project to meet unique system and client needs. On this project, GP JOULE designed Innisfail Solar to optimize performance of the bifacial modules selected for it. Because the Innisfail Solar farm is a merchant system, it conducted about one hundred design simulations aimed at maximizing production during peak demand to generate the most potential income for Elemental Energy. The angle of the 69,000 bifacial solar modules supplied by LONGi Solar were placed 10 degrees off azimuth from due south to maximize power production during peak demand in the early afternoon.


Particular attention was paid to the array design of the Innisfail, Alberta solar project to build up the number of modules installed on the 115-acre site owned by the town of Innisfail, to maximize power production potential. The 69,000 bifacial solar modules supplied by LONGi Solar were placed 10 degrees off azimuth from due south to maximize power production during peak demand in the early afternoon.


Using bifacial solar modules also delivers additional solar power generation from the light reflected from the ample snow cover that can last for up to seven months in Alberta. Pichard says that the cost of bifacial modules compared to monofacial modules has come down substantially since 2019, to the point where bifacial is now becoming the standard on many projects.

PHLEGON's innovative racking design includes a pile cap which is connected to a pre-fabricated torque tube assembly and pile. Compared to standard racking systems using non-continuous beams, PHLEGON uses a carrier plate with table gaps between the adjacent table as well as minimum and maximum pile heights.

Time saving features on the PHLEGON system include the use of pick-and-drop pre-fabricated torque tubes, main beam assemblies, and pile caps. Pre-galvanized, roll-formed steel members are joined using bolted connections and locknuts, thus eliminating on-site welding or fixture assembly. Together, GP JOULE says that these features expedite installation from the ground up to help developers meet tight project schedules.

Built-tough for extreme conditions, GP JOULE says that PHLEGON's use of pre-fabricated welds help reduce the number of bolted connections, which results in greater mechanical lifetime performance in very cold winters and very warm summers. The racking material itself is corrosion-resistant, hot dip galvanized steel for high performance over Innisfail Solar's expected 35-year lifespan.

As a turnkey partner, GP JOULE has applied its PHELGON racking system in about 80 percent of what it has installed over the past five years, primarily in northern climates.

To complement its racking system, GP JOULE installed cold-weather packaged inverters supplied by SMA Solar on the Innisfail Solar project.

As an added bonus, the array was engineered so Elemental Energy could easily install battery storage in future using GP JOULE's innovative plug-and-play solution. Should Elemental Energy make this investment, it will have the ability to store power and then sell it during peak demand to maximize its return rate.

There was also particular attention paid to the array design to maximize the number of modules installed on the 115-acre site owned by the town of Innisfail, again to maximize production potential.

Such nuances for peak power generation and project resilience in this harsh environment are sprinkled through the project. GP JOULE's success applying its technology in Innisfail has not gone unnoticed as the company already has three more 35 MW solar projects in the pipeline for construction in Alberta. Another 90 MW opportunity is on the horizon.

Houssian says that the town of Innisfail was very supportive of the solar project as its long term lease on the property is expected to generate $190,000 in annual property tax income as well as $20,000 donated annually to a community development fund to support community groups.