Solar farm cuts ribbon

Ken Johnston

Rainy River First Nation has harnessed the sun and stands to benefit from it greatly over the next 20 years!
An official ribbon-cutting ceremony was held last Thursday at the 25-megawatt solar farm it spearheaded and is running just northeast of Pinewood.
Band manager Dean Wilson welcomed a crowd of dignitaries and guests to the site, noting the project was more than six years in the making.
“We looked at wind first but determined that was not viable and turned towards solar,” he noted.
RRFN Chief Jim Leonard explained that with steadily rising electricity costs over the past decade, band residents asked leaders to look at alternatives that would save them money.
They looked at wind in 2006 but then turned to solar. And last week, they realized that potential by officially opening the 130,000-panel solar farm.
Chief Leonard said the province had awarded three solar projects in the west but added the company that was looking at building here was a developer only interested in flipping the farm.
“We began talking to them,” he noted. “But they, being a German-based company, did not take us seriously.
“But as we built our proposal and secured the financing and partners, we ended up purchasing the project,” Chief Leonard recounted.
“Last June we began construction.”
Even though they were two weeks behind schedule by mid-August (due to a wet spring), they made up ground and actually were done Dec. 17—ahead of schedule.
On Feb. 20, the band began producing power and feeding it into the Hydro One grid.
Wilson said there were 180 people on site during the peak of construction, which totalled $1.6 million in wages.
“We also estimate that between $40 million-$45 million was spent on lodging, etc. in the region,” Wilson added.
“Not only RRFN has benefited from this project!”
“We are investors in about 300 projects and while Rainy River [First Nation] is not the largest, it is one of the most successful,” said Matt O’Brien of Connor Clark & Lunn, one of the investors in the project.
“It was completed early with no hiccups and we had a very strong business partnership,” he remarked.
“For us, it is not the size [of the project] but the quality of the partners!”
Normal construction time for a project of this size is about 12-16 months. RRFN was done in seven.
Treaty #3 Grand Chief Warren White congratulated RRFN and praised their leadership.
“You are a strong economic community and are leaders for other Treaty #3 communities.” Grand Chief White said.
“If Rainy River [First Nation] can do it, other communities can, too!” he stressed.
Wilson said he and Chief Leonard could write a book about this project.
“No one thought we could get $160 million [in investment] but we did!”
Mike Penstone, vice-president at Hydro One, congratulated the community.
“Your chief’s negotiating skills are amazing!” he noted. “This is a very good example of how First Nations can work with Hydro One to achieve a project.”
The farm covers about 300 acres just north of Highway 11 on Morley-Dilke Road.
It is broken up into three areas—one five megawatts in size and two that are 10 megawatts.
It took more than 500 truckloads of helical piles (steel screws) and once installed, some 14,000 of them now hold about 130,000 3’x5’ solar panels.
The power is sent into the Ontario power grid via a recently-completed feeder line from the farm to the new Barwick transformer station.
Chief Leonard said it’s estimated the solar farm will generate about $16 million in revenue the first year.
Of that, it is expected between $1.3 and $2.3 million in profits will be realized by RRFN annually.
The province has granted the project a guaranteed feed-in tariff stream of revenue.
That amounts to a 20-year price of 45.8 cents per kW/h for power generated.
As with any solar panel, they will lose efficiency at a rate of about 0.7 percent per year.
Some of those profits will be used to offset electricity rates for RRFN residents on and off the nation.
The rest will be put towards further economic development activities by the band.
Last August, Chief Leonard said he is very pleased with the progress and the projected outcome of the project.
In fact, he said that if the capacity in the grid was there, they already would be looking at doing a similar farm.
“We are hoping that when the [New Gold] mine opens up, they will need about 20 mega-watts of power,” Chief Leonard noted.
“That would free up more capacity and we can move forward on another project!”