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Several approved projects not included in provincial renewables map

Posted on April 4, 2024 by Ryan Dahlman
Southern Alberta Newspapers Photo by Collin Gallant renewable map: Turbines from the Cypress Energy Wind farm, near Highway 41, is shown on Sept. 28, 2023.

By Collin Gallant
Southern Alberta Newspapers

A new map of zones where wind and solar proposals would face a “visual impact review” covers wide portions of Southeast Alberta, but captures very few proposed projects that aren’t already approved to be built.

That includes an additional 100 turbine towers north of the Cypress Hills, whole sections of solar panel arrays south of the city and near Dinosaur Provincial Park, according to analysis by Southern Alberta Newspapers.

Nor does it capture a planned 1,600-acre solar array inside Medicine Hat city limits.

In late February the province announced that a seven-month pause and review of how renewable energy projects are evaluated would create an “Ag First” policy to protect most-productive parcels, set down a reclamation funding requirements and also subject some to rules regarding “pristine view scapes.”

Two weeks later, very few details about how the changes will be folded into regulatory process of the Alberta Utilities Commission, but on March 14 renewables industry officials leaked maps that outline areas that would trigger a visual impact review.

The Cypress Hills is the centre of a 35-kilometre radius that triggers an automatic review within the AUC application process. Two others are UNESCO World Heritage sites: Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park and Dinosaur Provincial Park, a stunning badlands valley north of Brooks where a 500-megawatt solar plant is set to be built on adjacent land.

The map shows turbines would be barred completely from wide areas of the Eastern Slopes of the Rocky Mountains, and a visual impact zone – where development could occur – would be west of Lethbridge.

Closer to home, the Cypress Hills assessment zone extends north just past Irvine and the TransCanada Highway, though 48 turbines are already operating there, built three years ago by EDF Renewables.

The same company already holds permits to build the similarly sized Bull Trail wind farm on the east side of Highway 41. Early last year, France-based multi-national Engie won AUC approval to build the Buffalo Trail wind farm in an “S” shape between them.

That 40-turbine project can be built with an existing approval, but a proposed second, similarly sized wind farm in the area. That would assumedly have to go through a visual assessment when formally applied for.

Paul Von Huene is a rural resident south of Irvine and has opposed all projects stating they heavily detract from quality of rural life.

Earlier this month he told Southern Alberta Newspapers that he is still digesting the outcome of the Alberta Utilities Commission review and is awaiting concrete rules to be developed before commenting publicly.

Several companies with projects ongoing in the region also reserved comment.

In a statement, Affordability and Utilities Minister Nathan Neudorf said the rules are a reasonable response to concerns about renewable project site selection.

“We are proud that these policies put Albertans first and set a responsible path forward for renewable power,” it read.

“This is an issue that has been approached in a similar manner by several other jurisdictions in North America and Europe. These zones ensure that Alberta’s pristine viewscapes are protected by requiring visual impact assessments, a regular practice that is being improved.”

Vittoria Bellissimo, the president of the Canadian Renewable Energy Association said the industry needs fair, standardized rules soon.

“While the pause has lifted, there remains significant uncertainty and risk for investors wishing to participate in Canada’s hottest market for renewables,” she said on Feb. 28. “It is critical to get these policy changes right, and to do so quickly.”

The general maps show zones that would apparently miss three huge solar projects on the west side of Brooks, comprising 10,000 acres in total, and two smaller but still substantial solar projects in late approval stages at Hays and Alderson.

The Cypress Hills zone would extend west toward south of Seven Persons, potentially affecting the Aura Peace Butte Solar proposal. That plan to cover six quarter-sections in solar panels near the Black and White trial, south of Medicine Hat, was in process when the province announced a halt to approvals on Aug. 3, 2023.

As well, the Aira Solar Project, a huge installation on 4,500 acres south of Seven Persons, had completed hearings last spring and a decision was expected in Mid August. It’s unknown when matters will be rescheduled.

Outside either the zone, is the Saamis Solar project, proposed by DP Energy, which moves to an approval hearing in April.

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