Net zero: Alta. town grasps electrical holy grail

Solar panels on almost all town-owned buildings allow Raymond to produce enough electricity to run its operations

RAYMOND, Alta. — A small Alberta town is the first in Canada and likely the first in North America to produce as much of its own electricity as required to run town operations.

It’s called “net zero” as far as electricity is concerned and it has been achieved in Raymond, population about 4,000, by installing solar panels on nearly all town-owned buildings.

It is an approach other towns and municipalities could also embrace, said Jason Atkinson of Enmax, the Calgary-based utility that partnered with Raymond on its solar generation project.

“Raymond is being powered by the sun,” said Atkinson, director of operations for Enmax. “It’s like the field of dreams. If you build it, they will come.”

Solar panels have been installed on the town’s fire hall, town shop, aquatic centre, ice arena, town hall, Victoria Park stadium, Victoria Park carport, golf course and regional water treatment plant.

All but the carport installation are online and generating electricity whenever the sun shines. The carport, a major installation, is expected to be connected later this month. It will carry 984 of the town’s 2,826 solar modules.

“They’re really kind of unassuming,” said Greg Robinson, Raymond’s director of community and economic development, about the solar panels. “Most of the time you don’t even see them.”

As for those that are visible, “it sends a bit of a message to the community when they can see something like that. They remember it. It has a direct link to the goal the town has, which is to be net zero.”

Robinson said Raymond town council began exploring solar panel options after seeing solar installations in the nearby town of Cardston. Councillors were looking for ways to save money and be environmentally responsible.

““I don’t think the goal, on the onset, was really to be net zero,” said Robinson.

But as various options were explored, a larger project began to form.

“The first response I think from council was it just sounded too good to be true because it just made so much sense,” Robinson said. “The more we explored it in terms of the sizing and which buildings we were going to cover, the bigger the project got.”

The project cost was $2.7 million. The town made a down payment of $634,000 using a grant through the Alberta government’s Municipal Climate Change Action Centre. It has a 15-year lease with Enmax, which designed the project to ensure the capture rate of the panels accounted for each buildings’ electrical consumption.

“It’s always a bit of a theoretical process because you’re dealing with weather, but so far its been very good,” said Robinson.

When the sun is shining, the panels are producing electricity to power the buildings. Any excess goes back into the electrical grid, for which the town receives a credit. Based on a 12-month cycle, the town is expected to come out even, or net zero, on its electrical costs.

Enmax is responsible for maintenance during the 15-year lease period. The panels are expected to have a lifespan of 20 to 25 years.

Atkinson said solar panels are rated to degrade by about half a percent per year and they have a 30-year warranty. Enmax has found the degradation rate to be less than that.

So far the ice arena, with its large rooftop area, is the biggest generator, although the large carport at the stadium will take the title once it’s added to the system.

According to Enmax data, the greenhouse gas emissions eliminated by using solar in Raymond is the equivalent of taking 169 cars off the road.

The long summer days in southern Alberta, plus its number of days with clear skies, make it a good place to capture solar energy, Robinson said. He thinks other towns should consider projects similar to those undertaken in Raymond.

“I think they should look at it. Every municipality is in a unique situation, again depending on their buildings and their infrastructure. Just about any community, any size, can take advantage of it.”

However, Alberta’s recent change in provincial government could mean a change in renewable energy grant programs.

“We don’t really know what this government will do with that program, and so, for us, we were required to come up with the 25 percent down as per the lease agreement. However, in our case the grant covered that so … it was good timing on our part.”

Atkinson said there is great interest across the south in solar projects for agricultural as well as municipal applications.

“We’ve got a lot of solar going in, in southern Alberta, especially with farms and pumps. There will be a lot of action there,” he said.

As for Raymond, Robinson said there is more potential to capture the sun, given that churches, schools and the hospital could also install solar panels if the entities in charge of operations so choose.

For now, the town will enjoy its net-zero title.

“We’re pretty thrilled with that. We’re proud that Raymond has been able to kind of set a mark on a lot of historic things.”

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