By Collin Gallant
Southern Alberta Newspapers
Counties in southeast Alberta are welcoming a six-month moratorium on new renewable energy facility approvals while the province evaluates placing restrictions on where they can be placed and regulations for their eventual cleanup.
Such a move was called for by Cypress County council in July, shortly before Premier Danielle Smith announced it on Aug. 3.
“Ideally you want them sited near (power line) infrastructure, and not taking up arable land, especially since we want to expand irrigation,” Smith told Southern Alberta Newspapers at the Medicine Hat Stampede in late July when she promised the issue was on the agenda of the Aug. 2 cabinet meeting.
“We’re going to have to be very mindful to take that feedback from local landowners and local councils on that.”
The six-month hiatus, which ends Feb. 29, 2024, has been panned by critics and renewable sector analysts who say the unusual process of halting approvals will erode confidence and investment.
It follows a request by Rural Municipalities of Alberta, which lobbies on behalf of counties, to give more weight to local land-use bylaws when the Alberta Utilities Commission considers applications.
That comes from fears that too much land is being taken out of agricultural production.
In July, Cypress County directed administrators to evaluate whether its tax assessment data – which includes factors for soil classification – could be used to determine the rating system for whether wind or solar projects were appropriate.
That came as council voted to oppose a proposal before regulators to allow panels on six quarter-sections of non-irrigated crop land near the Black and White Trail south of Medicine Hat.
Dustin Vossler, who represents the area on county council, said he’s hopeful the review will address his concerns about land-use.
“I’m very happy the province has taken this step,” said Vossler. “They need to add a land classification into consideration. It’s very disruptive and at the end of the day there is a lot of marginally productive land that could be used (for renewable sites).”
The format of the review is not known, but the NDP opposition again called for public hearings to gather input from the public and green energy executives. It’s not known what participation will be allowed for rural jurisdictions.
A statement from the County of Forty Mile states officials see the review as a chance to “address long-standing concerns,” and they plan to participate.
“While the timing of this pause might seem sudden, it offers us a chance to reflect on the challenges and opportunities associated with these projects,” stated chief administrator Keith Bodin in a statement.
“We recognize that addressing these issues needed to happen, and we’re committed to ensuring that the final decisions align with the interests of our community.”
The interests of the community can come into conflict with landowners’ wishes, however.
Some farm and ranch owners, along with irrigation districts, are pleased to lease land long term for projects to provide stable income to augment farm receipts, similar to lease revenue from oil and gas operations.
“At the end of the day it’s up to producers whether they want it,” said Vossler. “But there’s got to be a way to better protect top producing land.”