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How the Okanagan is tapping solar power with unique energy centre

Summerland Energy Centre officially open as the Okanagan’s first utility-scale solar and battery energy storage facility
A once un-used site in Summerland, B.C., which was a former municipal works yard, is now home to more than 700 solar modules.

Summerland celebrated the grand opening of its energy centre on Tuesday, which the district describes as the first utility-scale solar and battery energy storage system in the Okanagan Valley.

The once un-used site, which was a former municipal works yard, is now home to more than 700 solar modules.

The project started in 2015 when council at the time looked at securing another renewable energy source to supplement their electricity system. In 2017, the district applied for a grant and was successful in getting $6 million for the project the following year.

In 2022, following a competitive tendering process, the district awarded the project contract to a joint venture of Wildstone Construction Group and SkyFire Energy along with other area contractors.

“It's been a long time coming. It feels great. It's been eight years of planning and project management. After that length of time, to see what we have and what's come out of it, it's really satisfying,” Mayor Doug Holmes said on Tuesday.

“We wanted to make an investment into our electrical utility. And part of that was this idea of can we generate a bit of our own power? Because Summerland is one of the five municipalities in BC that owns its own electrical utility.”

Holmes was joined by members of Summerland, Penticton and Nelson councils, and Dan Albas, MP for the Central Okanagan-Similkameen-Nicola.

Jeremy Storvold, Summerland's director of utilities, characterized the Summerland Energy Centre is a money-saving project for the local electric utility.

“Anything that it generates from the sun offsets our bill, with our transmission wholesaler. So the battery energy storage system is used to peak shave and that's a concept where we're able to cut our demand numbers down and reduce our demand costs,” he added.

“As far as expected savings goes, we'll see how things go next year. But our demand costs for Summerland come in at about $15,000 a month for a megawatt ... we'll see how it goes through the year.”

The variable factor will be the weather, if it is a wet year or dry year with a lot of sunshine.

On Tuesday, the facility was operating at 60 per cent capacity, which Storvold said is a “phenomenal performance” for November.

“Solar at the end of the day made a lot of sense, because, well, as you can see today, we have a lot of sunshine in Summerland. We have 305 days a year where we get sunshine,” Holmes claimed.

The $6.98 million project was completed on-time and on-budget with the majority of funding coming from the Canada Community-Building Fund. $980,000 from the district’s electrical utility capital reserve.

The centre encompasses a solar array with 412kW solar power capacity, 1MW of battery storage, 3.56 MWh power supply, and upgrades to the existing electrical system.

The project is a return to energy-generating roots for the area.

“Summerland electric utility started back in the early 1900s, where we had a Pelton hydro turbine down on Okanagan Lake, and we were one of the first communities in the Okanagan to actually be generating power,” Storvold said.

“Since that plant was decommissioned, Summerland hasn't had a source of energy of its own and so this sort of brings us back to those early days where we were a little more self-reliant.”

The system is also capable of an "islanding" mode, which acts as a micro-grid and would be able to actually supply one of the feeders with power from this facility in the event of an outage or loss of supply.

The aim is to not only help with reliability, but cost savings for everyone.

“Summerland will be seeing benefits from the solar generation now. So on our November bill, we should see a lower cost of energy for the Summerland electric utility right away,” Sotrvold said.

“We talked about electricity [because] every single person in the community uses electricity, every resident, every business, every farming operation, everybody needs electricity. So it's one of those rare infrastructure projects where the whole community benefits every single person benefits,” Holmes added.

The location at the site of the former Municipal Works yard on the ‘toe’ of Cartwright Mountain is part of a larger plan for an adjacent "eco-village," to be built to special environmental certifications promoting objectives such as reduced water and energy use, healthy lifestyles, protection of threatened species, and a diversity of housing types.

“Anything's possible in the future, we also have what they call a net metering program, where we encourage rooftop solar on residential properties and we buy that power back. So there's other ways we can expand, this site doesn't necessarily have to become bigger. We can develop our program where we buy power from residents,” Holmes said.

“This kind of area will be full of clean tech, and it's a way of forward-thinking kind of approach to community development.”

The District of Summerland is offering a public tour of the Summerland Energy Centre on Saturday, Nov. 18 from 9 a.m. to 1 a.m.

Those interested in joining the tour must sign up online here by Nov. 16. Details of how to get to the centre and where to meet will be shared two days prior to the tour with those who have signed up.