Innovation in Alberta: Bringing New Technologies to Solar Power

Borea Construction
Written by David Caldwell

As Canada works toward total carbon neutrality by 2050, a future rich in renewable energy moves ever closer. Canada’s largest renewable-energy constructor, Borea Construction, is making renewable energy more accessible and smaller in size and environmental impact than ever before.

Named for Boreas, the Greek god of the north wind, Borea began in 2006 and has constructed nearly one-third of Canada’s renewable energy projects, leading the charge in this necessary transition.

Over 70 large-scale projects, comprising over 6800 MW of completely renewable energy, have been completed or are in process.

Borea’s staff boasts over 200 skilled and experienced professionals, with an estimated five hundred site employees across Canada. Thanks to its experience and ability in renewable energy, the company can focus its skills on bringing cost-effective, turnkey alternatives to move the nation’s entire energy grid forward.

Putting the ‘new’ in renewable
Despite the pandemic, Borea’s mission to “deliver renewable with care” is moving ahead without interruption. Borea is using new technologies to improve renewable energy as well.

A major recent example is the Suffield Solar Facility in Alberta, owned and operated by BluEarth Renewables, which completed construction in October 2020. Borea was hired as the EPC contractor for the construction of this facility, which utilizes both bifacial panels and solar tracking technology.

The union of these two technologies heralds a bold new development in solar energy and may prove instrumental in future plant design.

Suffield’s location in Canada’s Energy Project is no coincidence. Although Canada’s Western provinces are facing a moratorium on coal-fired power plants, they have a far greater resource available; thanks to the flat terrain, they boast the sunniest weather in Canada.

Alberta alone enjoys an average of 1,900 hours of sunshine in the north and 2,300 hours in the south, making it the nation’s sunniest province—and a natural hotbed of solar development.

BluEarth’s Suffield Solar Facility boasts 90,000 solar panels organized into ten blocks; it will help Canada move down the road toward its renewable energy future and it demonstrates bold new technologies as well.

As their name implies, bifacial solar panels display photovoltaic cells on both sides, substantially increasing their output capacity. But more practically, the bifacial panels mitigate the blockage caused by accumulations of snow. This technology significantly improves the reliability of the solar farm during the frigid winter.

Making light of snow
With many types of solar panels, snow accumulation can at the very least necessitate tedious cleaning, and potentially take whole power plants out of commission. But with bifacial technology, power can still be generated on the panels’ reverse side from sunlight reflected off fallen snow.

This advantage provides enough power and heat through the power generation process to melt the snow and hold power generation steady.

Project Engineer at Borea, Moran Wang explains that as our planet faces the extreme weather that will result from climate change, it will be more essential than ever to maintain a resilient power grid during these events—and bifacial technology can help provide that.

But the bifacial panels are only one half of BluEarth’s Suffield Solar Facility’s new advantages. Panel tracker technology, which adjusts the panels so that they remain perpendicular to the sun on a single axial, helps the panels maintain constant optimal power production. The result is that their output, early and later in the day is superior to static panels, which in comparison enjoy full sunlight only for a limited time each day.

The second function of the solar tracker is to facilitate the snow removal process. Wang explains that, “If the panel detects snowfall, it will be triggered into a ‘snow-dumping’ mode. That makes it more reliable, in the sense of facing a more extreme environment.”

Generally speaking, trackers can increase electricity production by up to 15 to 20 percent, dependent on geographic location, and the bifacial panels produce 5 to 7 percent more energy than traditional panels.

Or as Wang prefers it, “To achieve the same amount of energy, you have a smaller footprint.”

Bird’s eye view
As project engineer for Borea on the Suffield Solar Facility, Wang also oversaw development of the plant’s weather station, Suffield’s eyes and ears, plus another innovation: an aerial drone outfitted with infrared cameras.

“It’s a huge asset,” says Wang, who pilots the drone himself. The bird’s eye view can highlight panel problems instantly, saving time and money during diagnostic procedures.

“We used to spend a huge amount of money to call in actual aircraft with human pilots and human camera operators to do this kind of service,” Wang recalls. “Now, we can use a tiny little drone operated by someone on-site.”

With the success of BluEarth’s Suffield Solar Facility, Wang says he believes the next step in renewable energy is increasing energy storage capacity and reliability; keeping the power flowing so energy grids don’t need to fall back on fossil fuel backups.

“I think one missing piece of the puzzle is making it more reliable,” he says. “From there, we can only improve it.”

Advances in battery technology can ensure wind power and solar continue supplying grids even during night hours or inclement weather, bringing renewable energy more in line with Canada’s ever-increasing energy requirements.

But while the Suffield Solar Facility highlights Borea’s ability to implement new ideas, it is but one of the company’s recent projects.

In Saskatchewan, approximately 10 km south of Herbert and approximately 40 km east of Swift Current, the Blue Hill Wind Energy Project is a 175 MW facility comprising 35 wind turbines with a capacity of 5 MW each. This project called for careful planning, as environmental constraints and hot afternoon temperatures presented some unique challenges, which Borea rose to meet.

Carbon-neutral coming
As Borea continues to advance these renewable energy projects as well as the relevant technology involved, the company is still committed to building a carbon-neutral energy grid in Canada.

“I do think renewable energy is the way of the future,” Wang says. He adds that although wind and solar power are hardly cutting-edge ideas, it is only recently that they have become really practical.

He agrees that with the additions of bifacial panels and tracker technology production, implementation costs may increase, but he argues solar technology is still very much an industry in its infancy.

“With everything in human history, we have to let it grow,” he says. “I’m proud to be at the forefront of this.”

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