The Canadian Rockies Public Schools board office in Canmore in September 2023.Jungmin Ham/Rocky Mountain Outlook File Photo

Canadian Rockies Public Schools is expanding its portfolio of sustainable energy and investing in battery storage.

Since 2010, CRPS has been harnessing solar energy to soften the volatility of market energy prices after the province deregulated its electricity market a decade earlier. In 2015, it invested in wind power. Now it’s looking at another growing renewable industry – energy storage.

The Alberta Schools Commodities Purchasing Consortium, with its mandate to manage and reduce school boards’ exposure to rising energy prices, voted on the move last year, although the vote was missed by CRPS, said Konstantin Gregovic, the school division’s secretary treasurer.

“We were actually looking at investing in all three, so we were looking at battery storage, more solar and wind. But, if we just go with the battery storage, we’re going to have more savings,” he said.

The consortium began exploring options to add energy capacity in 2022, with its partnering initiative with BluEarth Renewables on the Bull Creek Wind Power project exceeding the wind farm’s supply to power nearly 500 schools annually across Alberta, including all seven CRPS schools in the Bow Valley. The wind farm is a 29-megawatt facility south of Wainwright.

In its first year, electricity created by the windmill project led to a carbon tax credit of 69,549 units for CRPS. The surplus of credits can be sold to third parties, such as industrial emitters, to offset their emission levels.

“In the last five years, we’ve seen an increase in the carbon offsets, so we are getting good carbon offsets to decrease the cost,” said Gregovic. “Our distribution costs have [also] actually decreased the last five years along with energy consumption.”

Electricity costs in the province surged in 2022-23, with current residential rates exceeding 25 cents per kWh. Increased use and capacity issues experienced with the wind farm, which came online in 2016, means CRPS and other school divisions in the consortium must purchase power from an increasingly expensive open market.

“When we looked at our 2022-23 costs [for the wind power project], we’re seeing it has almost flattened out,” said Gregovic. “We were seeing a decrease every year prior to that for the last five years, but now it’s flattened. So, what’s happening is increased demand for that facility has increased the prices, and it’s a capacity issue as well, and we’re forced to buy from the open market when that wind project facility is at capacity.”

The wind power project is a 25-year commitment between the consortium and BluEarth which began in 2012.

School divisions are expected to earn their investment back on the project about 15 years after signing on, with the likelihood the project will become profitable in the remaining 10 years of the contract.

“It’s sort of a bell curve the way the cost is supposed to play out as initial costs were higher because that facility was being built and then it starts decreasing as the years go by,” said Gregovic.

The issue of addressing the challenge of needing to buy additional electricity on the open market was discussed in 2022, with the group later deciding to invest in a storage facility provided by Jurassic Solar LP to serve as a buffer, storing excess energy on high-production days to be utilized when the wind farm’s output is insufficient.

A cost comparison was completed between what is currently built with wind power and the expected forecast with both wind and battery storage. The results are positive for future cost savings for the next 15 years based on the life of the storage battery.

“It’s a huge battery, but we’re not the only ones that will be tapping into that energy capacity,” said Gregovic, noting there are other school boards signed onto the project through the consortium. The facility is expected to break ground in 2025.

Gregovic said the other added benefit for CRPS on the battery project is its investment in solar energy. It has 1,829 solar panels installed on its schools, with capacity to generate 703,584 kWh of electricity per year and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by an estimated 401 tonnes of CO2 per year.

All electricity produced by solar panels is used first by building operations, with any excess power exported to the province’s electricity grid and facilities receiving a credit on their electricity bills for the amount exported.

“(…) That’s chipped in with even more where we can basically resell back to the power grid, and we’re getting more money for that,” said Gregovic.

On solar energy rebates alone, he said CRPS averaged between $13,000 to $30,000 over the last three years.

“If we start shifting to battery storage from the wind power, that may relieve some of the capacity from the wind power as well, and then there’s a possibility to resell that power, too,” said Gregovic.

“We’re fortunate we’re within a conglomerate so that keeps our prices low. And that’s what we do as school divisions to save as much money as we can to put back into classrooms,” said CRPS superintendent Chris MacPhee.

By Jessica Lee, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Original Published on Mar 12, 2024 at 12:59

This item reprinted with permission from   Rocky Mountain Outlook   Canmore, Alberta

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