Sarnia hits 80(MW): First Solar, Enbridge open world’s largest (for now) photovoltaic power plant

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Tom Cheyney
Tom Cheyney
Tom Cheyney, former senior editor of PV-Tech and Photovoltaics International, is now chief curator of SolarCurator.com and director of Impress Labs’ solar practice.

Eighty megawatts of cadmium-telluride PV modules represents a lot of glass. As in more than 1.3 million panels’ worth, weighing over 15.6 million kg. And that’s not counting the thousands of tons of steel in the form of posts, tilt brackets, and the like, let alone the hundreds of kilometers of cabling. As impressive as they are, it’s not the massive amount of glass and steel that matters, but the sheer installed AC capacity of the 1150-acre First Solar-built/Enbridge-owned site outside of Sarnia, in the southwestern corner of Ontario a little over four miles from the shore of Lake Huron. Going by the name Sarnia 80, the megasystem is, for the time being, the largest operational photovoltaic power-generating station on the planet, thin film or crystalline silicon, by a couple tens of megawatts. “I call it ‘the brief moment of glory,’” mused First Solar’s Peter Carrie.

Sarnia won’t be in the top slot for long though: First Solar has already begun site preparation on the Agua Caliente site east of Yuma, AZ, where company spokesman Alan Bernheimer said the company “will start serious mobilization and construction this fall.” Although he added that it will take more than a year for the project (obtained when First acquired NextLight) to reach its planned 290MW (AC) size, the system will be turned on in chunks, meaning it will likely have over a hundred megs plugged into the PG&E grid by the end of next year and thus surpass Sarnia for biggest PV plant bragging rights.

(Although First Solar doesn’t like to state its installed megawatt capacity in DC numbers, the back-of-the-envelope calculation—1.2MW [DC] for every 1MW [AC]—would push the Sarnia figure close to the century mark, at about 96MW, and the Aqua Caliente spec to 348MW or so.)

The first 20MW of the Sarnia farm was completed in November 2009. Detailed engineering on the 60MW expansion phase began in the fall, with the construction team staying onsite to begin work. Carrie (who’s the company’s VP of business development for Canada) told me during a phone interview that the crew labored through the winter, primarily installing the posts, “which put us in a good position to accelerate construction in the spring.”

The first 10MW was finished in May, with the other 50MW built out in July and August. The total 80MW system was actually turned on and pumping electricity to the Ontario Power Authority on Aug. 20 (Guinness Book of World Records, please note), according to the First Solar VP.

So far, the power station is performing at or better than its contractual obligation: “on a sunny day, it will hit its full output well before noon,” adding that when the first 20MW at Sarnia was being commissioned, “it was putting out 24MW-plus AC.” With that kind of performance, the projected ~120GWh annual output figure appears to be well within reach. 

The CdTe modules deployed for the initial 20MW and the newer 60MW blocks have average power ratings of 75W, he said, and a good portion were manufactured at the company’s Perrysburg, OH, factory with the balance coming from its Malaysian production hub.

Bernheimer checked with First’s engineering, procurement, and construction (EPC) folks about the improvement in “construction velocity” as seen for the 60MW installed at Sarnia compared to the 21MW (AC) plant in Blythe, CA. While it took three months to build the southeastern California site, six months were required to erect nearly three times the Blythe project's capacity in the southwestern Ontario location.

The two sites have very similar designs and that’s not accidental, explained Carrie. “One of the ways we get our costs down and our construction efficiency up is to replicate a very similar layout, project to project—1MW blocks, with a central shelter with the inverters and transformers.”

But the grid-tie inverters in Sarnia are not the same as those deployed in Blythe, he related. The 500KW units installed in the Ontario project come from SMA and Xantrex (or Schneider Electric, if you prefer), while Siemens boxes reside inside the power conversion stations positioned among the desert system’s arrays.

The impressive aerial view of the Sarnia location also reveals that though most of the layout is in the “copy smart” cookie-cutter pattern of four 250KW chunks making up each 1MW block, some parts of the installation had to be customized to accommodate natural and manmade obstructions on the ground, such as pipeline easements, according to Carrie.

When First Solar arrived on the scene, about one-third of the land had been zoned for industrial use, the other two-third for agricultural, he said. “Had the solar farm not come along, the land would have likely been all zoned for industrial. When we arrived on the site, the lands were still in use for agriculture, and it was a combination of soybeans, corn, wheat and sugar beets that were still being grown.”

The site is bracketed to the northwest and east by a pair of landfills, as well as settling ponds to the northwest and some petrochemical refineries nearby. The city of Sarnia is a few miles away, but it’s the presence of Lake Huron that is the major topographical feature in the neighborhood. But that large body of water won’t have much effect on the performance of the solar utility.

Carrie explained that the prevailing winds usually come from the southwest and west, and “there’s no significant amount of water in that direction.”  There’s not much of the notorious “lake-effect snow” in the winter, except a few days a year when the wind might shift and come out of the north. He joked that the southwestern tip of Ontario where Sarnia sits is considered to be the “banana belt,” since the weather tends to be milder and less snowy than the rest of the province.

But when it does snow, the First Solar modules apparently have an inherent ability to shed the white stuff fairly quickly. When the panels heat up, the snow slips off, and the frameless design facilitates an even more rapid clearoff, such that the “snow is completely gone in a couple of days,” according to Bernheimer.

What’s left in the company’s Ontario pipeline? Carrie said that the company has another “95MW of standard offer contracts; of the 95, 5MW we’re under construction on, and the balance of the 90MW are expected to be completed in 2011.”

But don’t expect First Solar to add to that project pipeline soon, mainly because of certain aspects of the policy environment in the province. Due to the domestic content provisions of Ontario’s feed-in tariff, what he calls a “barrier to entry to FIT projects here,” the company cannot play in that part of the market.

The VP believes that the regional market “appears to be a substantial market opportunity. However, with the domestic content restrictions, it is difficult to predict what the pace of construction will be in the buildout of the projects.”

He also pointed to the centralized Renewable Energy Approval (REA) process, which took effect in September 2009 as part of Ontario’s Green Energy Act, as something which, from a large-scale solar developer’s perspective, “has made the process more complex, cumbersome, and time-consuming than the historical process,” which was run by the local governments.

He said that while there has been significant “dialogue between industry groups and province authorities on getting more clarity on the REA process, no large-scale projects have been approved since the REA has been in place.” Carrie is confident that “the process will get better,” but right now, it is “constrained by a lack of clarity.”

One characteristic of the Sarnia site might be getting some clearance from an atypical source. Carrie, who has a 100-acre farm, has sheep grazing under his own 10KW PV system, a practice that evidently works quite well in keeping the grass down.

His own pastoral experience may transfer to the sprawling fields of photon-harvesting arrays. “We’re giving some thought to looking at doing trials in 2011 to see if we can use some small sheep to help us mow the grass at the Sarnia project,” he told me.

I wonder if First Solar will have to apply for a zoning variance if that unusual pilot program takes off.

(The grand opening ceremony for the Sarnia 80 solar project takes place Oct. 4, with provincial, municipal, and company dignitaries in attendance.)

PHOTOS COURTESY OF FIRST SOLAR

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