With abundant sunshine and wide-open spaces, southern Alberta is a thriving centre for solar development. This is giving our teams an incredible opportunity to put our innovation and expertise to work on some of Canada’s largest solar farms.
Expanding Opportunities in Solar Energy
For Calgary-based CIMA+ project director Pierre Bérubé, it’s an exciting time to be working in solar energy in Alberta.
“There’s so much going on, so many exciting opportunities, and so many projects starting. And the size of the projects keeps growing” says Pierre.
When we first started working on solar energy projects in Ontario over a decade ago, ground mounted solar farms were small, often in the range of 10 megawatts (MW). These days, solar farms can be 10 times that size, and one of the projects we contributed to in Vulcan County, Alberta – the Travers Solar Project – will be 40 times larger.
Drawing on Experience to Design Better
In 2020, we had the opportunity to design what is currently Canada’s largest solar farm, near Claresholm, Alberta. It’s a photovoltaic generating station that has 477,198 solar panels and can produce up to 132 MW of electricity.
The Claresholm Solar Farm was the biggest solar energy project we had ever worked on, and our 40-member team designed and engineered the entire solar collector field up to the interconnection substation.
“We designed the entire solar farm – the layout of the solar panels and inverters, the site drainage and storm water management, internal roads on the site, and all the electrical interconnections, including AC and DC power cables and PV panel harnesses. We also conducted all power system studies required for the power grid interconnection and to size all the equipment,” explains Pierre.
“Our expertise in similar projects allowed us to deliver a high quality of engineering that facilitated the construction, minimized the rework needed, and had successful results at the end of the project.”
Working Closely to Manage Complexity
The sheer size of the Claresholm Solar Farm made the project more complex and required our team of electrical and civil engineers and telecommunications specialists to collaborate closely at each key phase.
Initially, our civil team had to design an internal road system so crews could travel around the massive, 1,200-acre site with ease and efficiency.
Storm water drainage was another big challenge. Our engineers worked together to plan a system that made efficient use of the existing land surface, yet still allowed water to drain properly throughout the site.
“It definitely required closer collaboration to optimize how the site drainage was developed,” says Pierre. As a result, our team was able to minimize the amount of site work that was required, which ultimately reduced construction costs.
Highlighting Opportunities for Innovation
With 477, 198 solar panels, the Claresholm Solar Farm needed a large, intricate network of wires and cables to transport the power generated by the panels.
Our electrical engineers realized that tracking all the equipment and interconnections would be a challenge for the construction contractor. So, they got creative. They developed an innovative software tool that automates the formation of all the interconnections, making them easier to see and simpler to manage.
“The tool facilitated and accelerated the creation of all interconnection documents that the contractor needed for the construction, and it minimized errors, as well,” says Pierre.
Powering Up Canada’s Future Largest Solar Farm
Upon its completion in late 2022, the Travers Solar Project will become Canada’s largest solar farm. More than three times bigger than the one in Claresholm, Travers will generate 465 MW of electricity – enough to power 150,000 homes.
For this project, our specific role was to design the high-voltage substation that will transmit the power from 1.3 million solar panels to the electrical grid.
“It’s an important part of making sure that all of this solar generation capacity will interconnect to the grid and be spread throughout Alberta,” says Pierre. “It’s great to be part of the largest solar farm in Canada and be making our contribution.”
Bringing Greater Efficiency to Solar Projects of All Sizes
While smaller in scale, our recent solar energy project in the town of Strathmore, Alberta gave us a huge opportunity to showcase our expertise in designing multiple aspects of a solar farm.
This 40 MW solar farm, located about 50 km east of Calgary, is another important addition to Alberta’s solar power industry. As well as the design of the civil and structural aspects of the interconnection station, our team provided all of the electrical, structural and telecommunications services needed for both the photovoltaic and grid connections.
It was project manager Jean-Hugues Lapointe’s job to keep work moving efficiently and find opportunities to deliver more value to our client.
“We’re trying to help construction and reduce construction costs as much as possible,” says Jean-Hugues, who works out of our office in Sherbrooke, Quebec.
Optimizing Design Reduces Costs
To do that, our team made extensive use of sophisticated computer modelling to keep costs down and construction work running smoothly.
By modelling every aspect of the design, we were able to specify exact sizes and quantities of cables and other equipment, so field crews got precisely what they needed. This reduced waste and made the work more efficient.
Modelling also improved safety. Our team could run models to accurately calculate how much voltage was going into the ground to make sure the site was safe – this was especially important because the project is located in a town close to communities where people live.
Contributing to Canada’s Solar Energy Future
Jean-Hugues says with over 10 years of experience, our engineering firm is among the best in Canada for solar farm design.
“The machine is well oiled,” he says, adding our team has repeatedly shown and proven that we can successfully deliver all components of solar farm projects of any size.
This enhanced capability could not have come at a better time. The future of solar power is bright, and this year, we are working on more solar farm projects across Alberta. At CIMA+, we are proud to play an important role in Canada’s transition to renewable energy.