AltaPro Electric Harnesses the Power of the Solar Industry

By Tina Costanza

Alberta wants solar power and AltaPro Electric is responding to the call.

The award-winning Edmonton-based company in the electrical design-build industry has seen an increase in demand for solar installations, which result in fewer greenhouse gas emissions and savings on electricity bills.

“This past year we’ve seen a lot more (demand) included in just our regular electrical bids,” says David DeBruin, Chief Financial Officer of AltaPro Electric. “There’s definitely an influx coming in on the municipal side. Most notably some very, very large ground-mount projects that are all in the pipeline for Alberta. They’re planned to be constructed here in 2021 and beyond, so there’s a huge wave coming that we’re working on.”

In addition to solar installations, AltaPro Electric provides a wide range of electrical services that include design-build, maintenance work, and integrated project delivery to name a few

Bert DeBruin, the company’s Chief Executive Officer, founded AltaPro Electric in 1987.

“I was working for another electrical company as a fourth-year electrician,” Bert explains. “There was no work really. You drove in every day and then some days you had work and some days you didn’t, which didn’t work well, because I had a mortgage at 13 ¾ per cent. So on my off days or when I got sent home I went into the Yellow Pages and I phoned every number starting with Aa, on house builders, and by the time I got to the letter C, I was busy.”

In a matter of time, Bert had more work than the company he was working for. “My boss called me in one day and said, ‘You have to make a decision.’ I said, ‘OK, I’m going to have to start my own company.’”

The move paid off. Today, AltaPro Electric employs 120-200 people, depending on the time of year, and has set records. Last year, it worked on Canada’s largest rooftop solar array in Acheson, Alberta.

“It’s a 1.83-megawatt,” says David. “It’s a record-setter for all of Canada — a pretty hard record to beat because it’s pretty large, so we’re very proud of that project. We did it in record time as well, we had to beat the snowfall that was coming in, as well if not completed in time would not receive a large grant approval from efficiency Alberta and we did. The last module was placed the day before it snowed.”

The company set another record for Alberta’s largest micro-generation solar project, a 4.6-megawatt with the City of Calgary for its Shepard composting facility.

“That was a large ground-mount array for the City of Calgary done in two phases, but it’s still, I think, a current title holder for Alberta’s largest micro-gen,” David says. The max you can go is 5MW under that regulation.

When AltaPro first starting working with solar in 2016, it completed a large array on top of its own building.

“It kind of set the tone for how we’re going to move forward in the industry,” David says. “We put in an array that would make our building electrically net zero and to date it’s still is the largest electrically net-zero multi-tenant building in Edmonton. The realization came when we were comparing cost savings by adding solar to other companies buildings and we thought to ourselves…..why are we not doing this? As it saved companies yearly operating costs.”

Leveraging the power from the sun

A solar project for a client begins with a site assessment, which is a critical part of the project, along with design. The site assessment team will consider factors such as location, condition, roof surface, aesthetics, shading from nearby trees or buildings, past yearly energy consumption/prediction, project budget, Building electrical capacity, and system goals. For instance, whether the system will aim for complete net-zero usage.

AltaPro Electric works with both residential and commercial clients. The approximate cost for residential systems is $3 a Watt for a turnkey system. Commercial and ground mounted projects vary as there are multiple factors that affect the cost. Generally, there is a good cost reduction with economy of scale, especially when you get into the mega projects.

AltaPro Electric will always talk to clients about the apps and monitoring devices available for their phones, so they can track energy production. Some clients really want to see it in real time, while other don’t focus on it.

There’s a lot of changes happening not only in technology but in the solar industry itself. This means the DeBruins have to keep up to date with changes that could affect their business.

“I know for Bert and myself, helping drive some of the code changes to make sure that what we have for code here in Alberta matches what’s commonplace from the manufacturers across the globe,” David says. “One of the hurdles with the Alberta marketplaces is we’re a fairly small needle in the haystack for volume, so when they design these products sometimes they don’t always work out with our code. We’re always trying to make sure itʻs compliant with our code or if our code needs updating to keep it up to date with new technologies

Bert, who serves on the safety codes council, adds that solar has been dominating the agenda because there’s been so many changes.

“I’m a representative from the electrical contractor association, and I sit on that board as a representation. And my job is not just solar but any kind of electrical stuff that doesn’t make sense. We try and provide some input in there to make it work for the industry and catch up with all the new technology that keeps coming through,” Bert says.

In terms of the solar modules themselves, David says there’s been some improvements, but not in leaps and bounds in terms of efficiency.

“It’s a fairly stable technology,” he says. “It’s the big items that are changing that you’ve got to keep up to date with — electronic components for the inverters and all the other software and dashboards. But the solar modules themselves are very stable. They’re not the item that changes or breaks. Solar modules always get the question, ‘Does hail damage them?’ and the answer is, ‘No.’ We monitor quite a few sites all over Alberta and through all the hail storms, and we’ve never lost the module. If we lose it, it’s because someone’s thrown a hammer at it or something like that. It’s very resilient.”

Business challenges and successes

In addition to keeping up with changes in the industry, another challenge AltaPro Electric has faced is when electrical work is completed by general labourers.

“I’m trying to find ways to get this sorted,” Bert says. “The challenge we have is that we get companies coming in from different places, and even local firms provincially that are trying to do these jobs with labourers rather than electricians, so they’re basically kind of going against what the rules are. Nobody’s really policing that saying, you’re not supposed to hire labourers to do electrical work.’ So that’s the challenge in our industry, is using unskilled labour to do solar.”

AltaPro Electric’s own team, however, is a strong one. The recognition it has received in the past five years alone include Alberta Venture Fast Growth 50 (2017), Alberta Venture Contractor of the Year Awards finalist (2016 and 2014), and Alberta Venture Contractor of the Year winner (2014 and 2011), And EY Entrepreneur of the Year finalists for 2019

Bert attributes the accolades to the investment the company makes in itself.

“We continually keep a good bottom line. We keep our equity high so that we’re very fluid and can actually handle a lot of growth,” he says. “We do a lot of hiring from within. We have pretty high standards. These awards are good recognition for our people, who are our biggest asset.”

Next up for AltaPro Electric is completing the projects it has underway and working on growing across Canada.

On its electrical side, the company is in the final stages of finishing a fast-paced large project dubbed “Whirlwind” warehouse. On the solar side, the company has recently installed solar systems for three schools in the Edmonton Public School Board.

Beyond Edmonton, AltaPro Electric has already expanded into B.C.

“We’ll pretty much go anywhere anyone will send us,” says Bert. “I would say that what’s next is basically being more of a national company.”

“There’s a huge wave of renewables works coming down solar,” David adds. “We’re excited to take part in that.”