Sunny days: GM says $400M solar farm is living up to expectations

Some 1.3 million panels at the Sarnia Solar Farm contribute enough green energy to the grid to power 12,000 homes a year — which is approximately half the homes in Sarnia. Glenn Ogilvie.

Cathy Dobson

More than most people, Ian MacRobbie gets asked if he’s getting enough sun.

It’s often the first question to come up.

That’s because MacRobbie is Enbridge’s general manager for the Sarnia Solar Farm, which was the world’s largest solar project when it opened nearly five years ago.

Sarnia-Lambton has been plagued by two particularly cold and snowy winters since the farm began operations on Blackwell Sideroad. But the $400 million farm has been able to live up to expectations and deliver the 80 megawatts of power promised in 2010, according to MacRobbie.

The project’s 1.3 million panels contribute enough green energy to the grid to power 12,000 homes a year, which is approximately half the homes in Sarnia.

“Some winters have been rougher than expected,” said MacRobbie, whose formal title at Enbridge is General Manager of Green Power, Transmission and Emerging Technology.

“I get questioned about the snow a lot,” he said. “But the reality is, if there’s enough light outside to read a book, the panels will produce.”

It’s true that cloudy days generate less energy than sunny ones, but a layer of snow does not stop generation, said MacRobbie. When it snows in the night, for instance, the panels will generate enough heat of their own to melt it in the daylight and it will just slide off.

“By 10:30 a.m. or 11 a.m., we are producing at full power,” he said.

Enbridge chose to build the world’s largest solar farm in Sarnia for a variety of reasons, including land availability, room on the grid in Ontario, and a decent amount of sunshine.

In fact, Sarnia averages measurable amounts of sunshine 288 days a year. That is generally more than anywhere else in Ontario.

“If you think about it, Sarnia is at the same latitude as northern California,” said MacRobbie.  “As much as we complain about the (lack of) sunshine, conditions are right for solar generation.”

Since opening the Sarnia farm, Enbridge has gone on to build a 5 MW farm in Tilbury, a 15 MW farm near Amherstburg and a 50 MW project in Nevada.

Since 2010, the Sarnia location has lost its stature as the world’s largest solar farm. By the end of this year, two other Ontario projects in Haldimand County and Kingston will surpass Sarnia in size.

But the Sarnia site, where six full-time and 12 seasonal employees work, is generating at its 80 MW capacity and meeting all expectations, MacRobbie said.

“The size of the farm hasn’t changed and we have no plans to change,” he added.

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Enbridge provides tours of the Sarnia Solar Farm to large groups, like elementary schools and colleges, by appointment only. Email cynthia.lockrey@enbridge.com for details.

 

Sun shining on the Enbridge Solar Farm, located on Blackwell Sideroad. Glenn Ogilvie

Sun shining on the Enbridge Solar Farm, located on Blackwell Sideroad. Glenn Ogilvie