"It's not a great place to grow food," president of SolarShare renewable energy co-op Mike Brigham says, pointing to a rock-strewn farmer's field at the edge of Kingston, Ontario. "But it's certainly a good place to generate electricity."
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Brigham is leading a tour at the launch of the co-op's $2.4 million Abbey Dawn project. It's a 500-kilowatt array of dozens of ground-mount solar panels deploying a new, Canadian-made system that optimizes power production by tracking the sun as it moves across the sky.
Technically in the city, the Abbey Dawn site feels rural and rustic. Perched on the edge of a bird sanctuary — you're more likely to see turkey vultures than people here — the project has ecological integrity at its core.
Brigham says photovoltaic systems produce peak power when Ontario needs it most (summer afternoons when air conditioning is at maximum) so the project reduces reliance on natural gas "peaker" plants that contribute to climate change.
The solar modules are warranted for 25 years but Brigham believes they'll produce clean power for the better part of half a century. And they won't create much waste at the end of their useful life, according to engineer and member of the Ottawa Renewable Energy Co-op Nate Preston: "When it comes time for decommissioning, the aluminum frames and silicon-based panels can be recycled."
Clean-up costs will be minimal. There are no underground foundations to remove, no toxic leakage. And if farmers 50 years from now want to return the field to agriculture, they'll find the soil uncontaminated.
Abbey Dawn has virtues beyond being a solar project. Brigham hopes grazing sheep, not herbicides or workers with machinery, will control the weeds growing between the solar arrays. (He stresses the groundskeepers mustn't be goats: "They'd eat everything, including the electrical wiring!")
He's also hoping to bring beehives and clover to the site, and other pollinator-friendly plants to attract butterflies. The developers are creating a kind of Promised Land in Southern Ontario: a land flowing with milkweed and honey will surround the emissions-free energy panels.
Driving back to downtown Kingston, Preston and I chat about solar energy's future. "The technology's very scalable," he says. This is helpful because our upcoming power needs, even a few years hence, are not yet clear. We may need more juice or, if conservation programs are successful, less. While nuclear, for example, locks us into massive generation, solar is nimble. "Depending on your needs, you can build arrays of a few panels or thousands," Preston explains.
With this flexibility, Abbey Dawn shows that photovoltaic systems can enhance the environment in numerous ways — contributing not only to climate protection, but also biodiversity.
Note: Gideon Forman is a SolarShare member.