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Cypress County’s solar debate with Aura Power comes under bizarre conditions

Posted on September 21, 2023 by Ryan Dahlman

By Collin Gallant
Southern Alberta Newspapers

A plan to place thousands of solar panels on dry farmland south of Medicine Hat is advancing with semi-formal talks between the developer, Aura Power, and the only registered opponent, Cypress County.

The two sides met Sept. 6 in Dunmore at county council’s regular meeting to discuss the “Peace Butte” Solar project ahead of an October deadline when Alberta power regulators could take up the issue.

The already unusual circumstances of pre-hearing discussions taking place are made even stranger by an evolving moratorium on new green energy approvals across the province.

Some regulatory work is proceeding up to, but concluding before, the approval stage, and Victor Beda, a senior project manager in Canada for U.K.-based Aura Power, said talks are important at all stages.

“Consultations with stakeholders should always be ongoing whether they are opposed or not,” said Beda, adding that it is unclear at this point what additional requirements may be applied to projects once the six-month provincial pause in approvals is complete next winter.

“A lot of discussion has been about decommissioning and we have a sensible plan there,” he said.

Cypress County filed a statement intending to participate in the hearing process to voice concerns over the need to protect agriculturally productive land.

Beda addressed Cypress County council, and took questions for about an hour before concluding with their own questions about the county’s position on opposing the power plant.

“Council will make a decision in due course,” said county CAO Tarolyn Aasrud after requesting detailed plans to grow grass on the section in a timely fashion, control weeds, fight potential prairie fires and eventually reclaim and remediate the six-quarter section parcel.

“Enough BS,” said Coun. Shane Hok early in the discussion, outlining his fears the project would become dilapidated with few workers on site.

Aura said the current AUC rules on siting installations bar development on native grassland, essentially steering development toward crop land.

They have remediation requirements built into their binding lease agreement with the private landowner, they only make money on production and the reclamation process is much more straight forward than on oil and gas leases.

Coun. Robin Kurpjeweit said the project could be a positive, but it is incumbent on the company to gain public confidence.

“Abandonment; that’s like the orphan well situation,” he said. “It may not be your (company’s) problem, but it’s a problem.”

The Aura Peace Butte project would see solar arrays cover six quarter-sections about 18 kilometres south of Medicine Hat on the Black and White Trail.

It would have a top capacity of 230 megawatts and be coupled with a 75-megawatt battery storage system.

A recent report by the Pembina Institute estimated the annual benefit to county tax revenue above $4 million per year.

Beda said the site was selected because there is a landowner willing to lease land for the project, its proximity to transmission lines (a major line bisects the site) and it is generally flat and wouldn’t require grading.

In July, County councillors, led by Seven Persons ward Coun. Dustin Vossler, voted to oppose the proposal, stating the land, which is non-irrigated and leased to grow wheat, should be protected because it’s a productive ag parcel with runoff supplying a large dugout

This week, Vossler reiterated his concerns about ag productivity and fire control, eventually calling the company’s answers “hogwash.”

“There is so much land in this county suitable for solar, and we’re talking about land with class 1 to 5 soil,” he said.

Reeve Dan Hamilton told reporters afterward that private landowners have the right to sign leases and manage their land as they see fit, but areas of consolidating ag land, fire control and roads are in the county’s authority.

“Nothing sounds unreasonable here, and I’m sure we can make this work,” Beda told reporters after the presentation.

The project will be subject to a “written hearing” conducted by an AUC panel in October. Since there are no other intervenors, the matter would typically go through a process to evaluate submissions, then could proceed to the approval stage.

In early August the province announced it would halt new approvals of large wind and solar proposals until the end of February 2024.

But, fearing a backlog of work at that time, the Alberta Utilities Commission has said some work will continue, including requests for information and responses that are typical before hearings go forward and decisions are made.

Additional information was released this week about potential requirements.

The company is moving several projects ahead in Alberta, including the Empress Solar Park in the north of Cypress County, which is nearing completion and now owned by Atco.

The Peace Butte project is similarly named, but unrelated to the “Peace Butte Wind” farm proposal being developed by Pteragen.

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