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Local reactions to renewables rules range from reverence to riled up

Posted on March 5, 2024 by Ryan Dahlman
Southern Alberta Newspapers Photo by Collin Gallant NEW FACILITIES: Pictured is land south of the CF Industries fertilizer plant that is subject to a plan to build one of the largest solar energy facilities in Canada. With the moratorium on renewable energy project approvals lifted as of today, the Saamis Solar field will now move to the AUC for consideration.

By Collin Gallant
Southern Alberta Newspapers

Local opponents of wind and solar projects are encouraged by an outline of new rules that will be applied to renewable energy projects, even though they need more information and final versions of how green energy sites will be approved.

Industry associations however, say the landscape is still “cloudy” for major projects and whether major investments will be hampered remains up in the air.

Feb. 29 marked the final day of a seven-month moratorium on green energy facility approvals in Alberta – imposed Aug. 3 last year as Premier Danielle Smith said it was critical that regulators study reclamation, the local impact on the environment and agricultural productivity, as well as transmission costs and the stability of the provincial grid.

On Feb. 28, she and Utilities Minister Nathan Neudorf outlined policy changes to consider “ag first” when assessing land use, the ability to irrigate the parcel, the soil type, as well as location to major lines and the effect on “pristine viewscapes.”

“The past months have enabled us to do the work that we need to do to ensure that the standards we have in place serve Albertans best while continuing to guarantee the affordability and reliability of our electricity grid,” said Smith in a press conference.

More than two dozen project applications caught up in the seven-month halt – including seven in southeastern Alberta – will now proceed toward approvals.

Depending on final rules, expected soon from the Alberta Utilities Commission, some in-process applications may need to be reopened to comply to new standards.

County of Forty Mile resident Linda Fisher opposed the Aira Solar facility (located on six sections of land south of Murray Lake) at hearings last spring, and was awaiting a decision report due in mid-August when the pause came down.

“My first impression is that I’m happy that they did listen to the various stakeholders, and I’m happy the projects will be held to the standard,” she told Southern Alberta Newspapers on Feb. 28.

She doesn’t now if general changes will be enough to do that in the case of Aira.

Smith said Feb. 28 that development will be judged more critically when land has Class 1 and 2 soil types – relatively rare in the southeast portion of the province – but also institute 35-kilometre buffer zones from “pristine viewscapes.”

The Aira site is 2.5 kilometres from Red Rock Coulee, from where about 80 wind turbine towers are already visible to the west.

Dustin Vossler is a Cypress County councillor who rallied council support to oppose the Aura Solar facility, proposed near the Black and White Trail.

The county eventually took part in the AUC hearing process and developed its own ag productivity maps.

“I’m a little bit disappointed actually, that they’re only protecting Class 1 and 2 soil, and not 3 and 4 as well, especially down here,” said Vossler. “Really, any cultivated land should be protected, but anything is better than nothing.”

On sites featuring Class 1 and 2 soil (the most productive for growing), developers would have to prove crops or grazing could “co-exist” with the energy facility, and a judgment on the potential for irrigation will be made.

Near Hays, west of Medicine Hat, Proteus Solar is awaiting approval to build a 120-megawatt solar array partly on land owned by the Bow River Irrigation District, though officials say the specific land is marginal.

The Pembina Institute says the rules target the renewables sector above hurdles set for other industries and removes landowners’ rights to develop property.

As described, the buffer zones could cover 76 per cent of southern Alberta.

“The Government of Alberta has firmly chosen more expensive energy for Albertans with today’s announcement and takes Alberta in the opposite direction of global energy trends,” it concluded.

The announcement has “raised more questions with their supposed answers,” said Jordan Dye, the director of the Business Renewables Centre, in a release. “This is not the level of detail the industry needs to make investment decisions.”

Nearest to Medicine Hat is the Saamis Solar proposal to build a major solar array on bare land north of Crescent Heights and near plant sites inside city limits.

That is due to move to hearing stage in April with three intervenors opposed to the project, expected to cost $400 million.

Along with Hays Solar and “Peace Butte” Solar Project, other projects in the region currently being processed by the AUC include:

– The Alderson Solar project, developed by German firm “hep,” a 100-megawatt solar array to be built west of CFB Suffield;

– PACE Canada applied during the pause to build the “Salt Flats Solar Farm” inside the City of Brooks;

– Near Brooks, the $700-million Rainier Solar Krafte solar project would cover 1,100 acres west of Brooks.

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