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​​​​​​Harnessing the sun to treat water

​​Sam, Trina and Valerie (pictured above) are working to make the most of the sun’s energy by connecting industry, research and education through one of North America’s most unique solar farms.​​

By Curtis Gi​llespie​

​Sometimes land has to sit before you know what crop will thrive on it. This was the case at the E.L. Smith Water Treatment Plant, which opened in 1976 and where much of the site was empty and earmarked for future expansion. Only recently however, advances in solar energy created options for an entirely different kind of harvest. A solar harvest.

The North Saskatchewan River winds its mighty path through Edmonton, flowing roughly from southwest to northeast on its way out of town to ultimately draining into the Hudson’s Bay. Edmontonians are blessed to have such a massive water system to draw from, which is where the E. L. Smith plant comes in. The plant sits in a bend of land beside the river in the southwest corner of the city within sight of the bridge that takes the Anthony Henday freeway over the river. This single plant provides 65 per cent of the Edmonton area’s drinking water supply.

​S​hining a light on the path to net zero

​Trina Manning, EPCOR’s senior manager of sustainability, did her graduate work in environmental engineering in Germany and recalls from over a decade ago how far ahead that country’s solar energy program was compared to Canada’s. When she returned to Edmonton with her family in tow in 2012, she began working at EPCOR in project management and wastewater treatment plants, where everything in her role circled back to sustainability.  ​​

​“Climate change mitigation and adaptation is a focus for the company,” says Manning. “Our solar farm and battery project is an important aspect ​of that.”

EPCOR has set an overall target of a 50 per cent net reduction in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2025 and to be net zero by 2050. ​​

Trina Manning is one of dozens of members of Team EPCOR who brought the k​īsikāw pīsim solar farm to life. “It’s the project of a lifetime.”

​The solar farm is a central element of the overarching strategy, given that the water treatment plant is EPCOR’s second largest power user, due to the energy needed to pump roughly 250 million litres a day to the city and its surrounding communities. Having a solar farm on site will dramatically alter that equation.

How? Ever heard the term “behind ​the grid”?

That’s okay. Me neither.

​​Clean water from clean energy 

What “behind the grid” means is that the solar farm and the attached battery system are all on the same site as the treatment plant. In fact, they are not only on the same site, they are just metres apart. 

Having an energy source capable of supplying 50 per cent of its needs behind the grid means that the energy goes straight to the plant. It doesn’t have to enter the power system first. The panels gather the energy. The energy goes directly to the plant, but can also be transferred to the batteries for storage. There is no extraneous infrastructure on the landscape. There is no natural gas or coal used to create the electricity. There is no “line loss” during transmission. 

There is also the benefit of being able to store back-up energy on site, which makes the plant more resilient in case of grid interruptions. ​


Le​​ading fo​​r​ the environment 

EPCOR’s commitment to the en​vironment is foundational to our company’s success and the sustainability of the co​​mmunities we serve. Discover how we are driving innovation to address environmental and climate change challenges. 
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​Honouring Indigenous history, partnerships

But there is more to this story than efficiency and sustainability. The solar farm sits on land formerly part of the Enoch Cree Nation (ECN), which was made to surrender it in 1908. After that, it passed through a series of owners before being designated the home of the water treatment plan. But as EPCOR grew alongside the city and as reconciliation assumed a larger place in our collective consciousness, it seemed only right for EPCOR to engage with the nation. This engagement with the ECN, as well as with dozens of other Indigenous nations, included sharing information about artifacts uncovered and obtaining feedback on proposed developments.

“And we’re doing that not just for this solar farm project,” says Trina Manning, “but for all the projects at the plant.”

The process led to the signing of a memorandum of understanding in 2020 between EPCOR and ECN, which brought ceremony back to the land, opened the door for the harvesting of medicinal plants and offered land-based learning opportunities for Indigenous youth. It also resulted in the naming of the solar farm: kīsikāw pīsim, which means daylight sun in Cree.

​Harnes​​sing the power of research and education 

There are other unique aspects to the project. Sustainability may be the driver of the solar farm, but there are few other passengers enjoying the ride, namely, research and education. Sam Ferraz is the program coordinator with Future Energy Systems (FES) at the University of Alberta. FES is essentially a research program launched in 2016, with $75 million from the Government of Canada’s Canada First Research Excellence fund, focusing on multi-disciplinary research into current and future energy technologies and their consequences for society, the economy and the environment. With 121 research projects, almost 1,000 grad students, over 150 researchers, and over 4,000 research outputs, let’s just say it’s a rather large program. ​

Ferraz is originally from Venezuela, but after studying there and in France, he came to the University of Alberta specifically to work with FES. “Working in academia and having the opportunity to liaise with several students and researchers and industry all with the same goal of working towards a net zero carbon economy, I mean, it virtually speaks for itself!” says Ferraz. 

“There are so many ways researchers can connect with industry because industry usually wants researchers to look at and to find solutions for their real-world problems. Of course, there must be interest on the researcher's side to look into those specific questions.”​

Studying the greenery next to green energy

FES is currently working on launching two joint research projects with EPCOR. One of them is going to look at the societal acceptance of renewable energy installations, and comparing the solar farm’s decision processes with those of other installations in Edmonton. The other project involves researchers from the Faculty of Agricultural, Life and Environmental Sciences, working on assessing the re-vegetation approaches at the solar farm and using pollinators (like bees and butterflies) as indicators of success of these re-vegetation strategies. The research possibilities at the solar farm are, therefore, only partly about energy. 

​It’s because of that variety and complexity that education is such a vital part of the overall approach. Having a fully operating solar farm in the city servicing a water treatment plant is “like having a living classroom,” says Dr. Valerie Miller. She is the outreach and engagement coordinator for FES, as well as the coordinator for the Land Reclamation International Graduate School (LRIGS). 

​Teaching a new​ generation about renewables​

Miller started her university life in Ontario at Trent University, and during her PhD exploring land reclamation in the north, she became passionate about science communication, which led to her current roles at the University of Alberta. In her work with FES, she spends time engaging the community with research, building relationships, getting researchers into classrooms and libraries and communities into research spaces, and basically developing all manner of educational programming. ​

“The educational goal in FES,” says Miller, “is to break down barriers and get as much information as we can into the hands of the public and of people who make decisions around energy.”

FES started an educational children’s book series called The Energy Adventures of Tommy and Remi, in which a cartoon dog and cat learn about the world of energy and climate change and search for ways to make a difference. In their second adventure, The Case of the Shiny Roof, the duo learns about the wonders of solar power, with Miller turning the story into a video read-along filmed at the solar farm.

 “This is amazing for the viewers because, as we're reading about solar panels, kids can see solar panels and what a solar farm looks like,” says Miller. “Overall, FES’s goal is to reach and connect to as many audiences as possible.”

Having a fully operating solar farm in the city ​servicing a water treatment plant is “like having a living classroom,” says Dr. Valerie Miller.

​Project of ​​​a lifetime

Research, education, stronger Indigenous relationships, sustainability and efficiency. These are all part of the harvest at the solar farm. “This project has been complicated,” says Manning. “There have been so many dimensions to integrate. You’re talking about reducing greenhouse gases, looking at different environmental, social, and governance pieces, working with Indigenous communities, factoring in local priorities, all while doing something unique in water treatment. But it’s been worth the effort. The truth is, it’s the project of a lifetime.”

​Re​lated content

kīsikāw pīsim solar farm

The kīsikāw pīsim solar farm provides almost half of the electricity needed to power the E.L. Smith Water Treatment Plant and its water treatment and distribution processes. ​

Upping the c​r​eek

Less than a decade ago, Saskatchewan's Qu'Appelle River watershed was in trouble. EPCOR's public-private partnership with the City of Regina turned things around thanks to innovative wastewater technology.​

Full circle

At the Goldbar Wastewater Treatment Plant, EPCOR turns wastewater into valuable things like fertiliz​​er, biogas and reclaimed water for industry. It’s one way we are leading for the environment.​