Robert B. Somerville Co.

Robert B. Somerville and Almita Piling build a Solar Farm project in Ontario. Ontario established its position as a pioneer in renewable energy when it developed North America’s first comprehensive guaranteed pricing structure for renewable electricity production.

The feed-in-tariff (FIT) program offers stable prices under long-term contracts for energy generated from renewable sources such as biomass, biogas, landfill gas, on-shore wind, solar photovoltaic and hydropower.

FIT enables the province to construct renewable energy infrastructure using private investments without the initial outlay of capital, while advancing its mission to phase out coal-fired electricity generation by 2014. In addition, the program is expected to boost economic activity and generate new green industry jobs, especially for the construction industry.

In particular, FIT has created a unique opportunity for Robert B. Somerville Co. Ltd. For more than 50 years, the King City, Ontario-based contractor has designed, installed and maintained the infrastructure for utilities as well as mainline and distribution systems for oil and gas pipelines. The province’s decision to pursue renewable energy generation bodes well for Somerville since its core business includes electrical collection systems.

Perfect Partnership

Since January, Somerville and its joint-venture partner, Ponoka, Alberta-based Almita Piling Inc., have been working on the 30-megawatt Sault Ste. Marie Solar Farm project in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. Under a $1.8 million contract, the two companies are supplying and installing nearly 21,750 helical screw piles and a racking system for Q-Cells International Canada, an affiliate of Q-Cells SE. They will subsequently install the solar panels onto the racking system before the project concludes in June. Q-Cells will provide operations and maintenance services for the system.

Although Somerville has acted in a subcontractor capacity on previous solar projects, such as land preparation, road building and electrical collection, this is its first large-scale solar project, and it is pleased to be doing it in partnership with Almita. Together, the companies can provide a full range of services and be more cost competitive, says Somerville Manager of Contracts and Business Development Abe Dyck.

Aside from its expertise in electrical collection systems, Somerville has constructed pipelines across Canada for decades and has the equipment and experience to build projects across a diverse range of terrains. Almita had worked as a subcontractor to Somerville on previous pipeline projects, which is how the two companies were introduced. 

“Almita has a long history in Alberta of manufacturing and installing screw piles,” Dyck states. “However, because FIT requires local contractors, they can’t do installations in Ontario unless they open an office here. That is not their core business. They are very busy in oil and gas in Alberta, so that’s why it is beneficial for us to partner on these solar projects in Ontario.”

Learning Experience

FIT requires solar farms to be built on land that cannot be used for agricultural purposes. As a result, they are typically built in areas with poor soil conditions, Dyck says. The Sault Ste. Marie Solar Farm site is on swampy land, which is why Somerville and Almita opted to build the project in the winter and take advantage of the frozen conditions.

However, “This winter was so cold that we lost a lot of the productivity we were hoping for because the frost was causing more challenges than we originally anticipated,” Dyck says. “At the same time, there were deadlines to get this project on stream, so we increased our resources by bringing in more equipment and more manpower to pick up the productivity that we had lost.”

Then, in the springtime, a quick thaw created very wet soils, “so we had to bring in different resources to work around these new soil types,” he continues. “The client has been impressed with our ability to access alternative equipment to meet the new site conditions. We invested in a large number of excavators with drill head requirements to do these screw pile installations. The client liked the fact that we made that expenditure and are doing everything we can to meet their schedule.”

Because this is the first major solar project Somerville and Almita have worked on together, the Sault Ste. Marie Solar Farm has been a learning experience for both companies. “It’s a very heavy logistical effort that has to run smoothly, and I think we’ve learned everything we needed to learn on this first project, so we know firsthand how we can improve for other projects,” Dyck states.

He adds that Somerville intends to continue partnering with Almita on all future solar farm projects. “This project is 30 megawatts, but there are at least another 2,500 megawatts of projects that have to be built in the next couple of years,” Dyck notes. “In fact, there are probably more projects than availability of resources.”

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