Irrigator plans to run pivots with solar

The solar array installed on Merlinds Farms near Grassy Lake, Alta., will power irrigation pivots this summer.  |  Barb Glen photo

GRASSY LAKE, Alta. — Alberta’s first solar-operated irrigation pivot will start making its rounds this spring as soon as water starts flowing in canals.

The 136.4 kilowatt solar array was installed at Merlinds Farms Ltd., operated by brothers Cory and Lindsay Nelson, in November, so they have yet to see how it functions in terms of electrical production in the growing season.

However, until the pivots begin to irrigate some of the 12 crops grown at Merlinds Farms, the solar panels are having a welcome effect on electrical bills.

“Actually, I’ve got a credit on my bill,” said Cory Nelson.

“That’s kind of neat. It’s interesting to see a little bracket beside the number.”

As far as he knows, the two ground-mounted systems — one producing 44.6 kilowatts and the other 91.8 — are the first solar operated pivots in Alberta, but Nelson said he doubts they will be the last.

“I think this is the right location for them.”

“You’re going to see quite a few of them up,” he said. “Through Lethbridge, Medicine Hat and north a little ways to past Brooks, we are just in a really good location to capture the power of the sun.”

Nelson said he and his brother considered the solar option carefully, given that there is an estimated 15-year payback on the investment.

However, the array also has an expected lifespan of 35 to 40 years.

“We thought it would be interesting to be kind of right at the start of it. The program looked like the payback was reasonable enough.”

They used the provincial Climate Change and Emissions Management Corp. program offered by the previous government with Enmax as the provider. It will cover about 25 percent of the cost. Even so, it wasn’t cheap, said Nelson.

“The price of power has been low recently because I think overall the energy industry is struggling, but long term I would say that the trend is that we’re going to see the price of power, over time, go up.

“When you produce your own, for this site, you don’t have to worry about the price, really. The part that I have to worry about is the transmission and distribution charges.”

The latter charges are about eight cents per kilowatt hour, he said, “so that’s a fairly significant portion of your bill.”

The system is net zero, meaning it is set up to produce as much electrical power as the farm operation needs annually with about 10 percent extra capacity built in as a contingency.

Merlinds Farms has each of the two arrays running section-wide pivots, one using a 125 horsepower pump and the other a 75 h.p. pump.

““I get a few people phoning and asking if it’s a good investment,” said Nelson. “We don’t know for sure, but when we put our numbers down … 15 years seems like a long time for break-even, but time goes by pretty quick.”

He said Enmax has been a co-operative partner in the project. It has a lease and financing program that Nelson described as inexpensive over the long term.

Solar Optix, a Lethbridge company, installed the system, which has a 15-year parts and labour warranty.

The panels are hail resistant and have sturdy mounts. Though there are solar array options that allow the panels to move with the sun, those are more expensive and have moving parts, so the Nelsons opted for the stable array.

“That’s one of the other reasons why we were comfortable with it,” said Nelson.

He can monitor the electrical output on his cellphone using a program that can provide data by day or month. It also gives information on carbon emissions saved or cost savings measured in terms of light bulbs.

Nelson called that information “tree hugger stuff,” and admitted he takes some ribbing from his friends about becoming a green energy convert.

“We don’t view it from a global warming standpoint. We view it based on the economics of it. Does it have a payback? Is it a good in-vestment? That’s how we view it.”

Solar Optix hired staff for the installation so it has generated employment in the region. Nelson said he is pleased about that, given the loss of Alberta jobs in recent years because of the slump in oil and gas activity.

Cory and Lindsay’s father, Merle, died in March but not before welcoming the venture into solar power.

“When we put this in, Dad was 85 years old. He thought it was quite interesting that we were doing something that was relatively new. He always supports that. He likes it any time we try something new,” Nelson said.

“It doesn’t always work out, but you try to make your best decision based on the data you have and this looked like a pretty good investment. We’ll have a better idea this time next year.

“I’m kind of curious to see, on a real nice day in July, whether it will produce all the power that I need on that particular day.”

Weather statistics show that Medicine Hat, which is 85 kilometres east of the farm, receives an average 2,544 hours of annual sunshine and 330 sunny days and is among the sunniest places in Canada. Lethbridge, 85 km to the west, is a close second at 2,507 hours, but it gets 333 sunny days on average.

Southern Alberta’s many hours of sunlight are a boon to solar production, and other agricultural operations are using it for things such as hog and poultry barns.

Several rural municipalities have also installed solar systems to take advantage of provincial grants.

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