Alberta solar projects raise tensions over farmland use

Solar panels face the direction of the sun at the solar installation of the Prairie Sunlight II Solar Project (Hull Project) on July 30, 2021, near Vauxhall, Alta.Ian Martens / The Globe and Mail

Rumble along the gravel of a southern Alberta fairway road, there are lots of cows, pump jacks and fields that are typical of this part of the world. Then, next to a sugar beet field, emerges a spectacle that rapidly changes the landscape of the province’s energy industry: acres and acres of solar panels.

Welcome to Alberta’s solar belt, where long days of sunshine, relatively little snowfall, and a unique electricity market in Canada have fueled increased solar investment as the province’s energy industry rapidly evolves.

Ten years ago, Alberta’s list of large private and public projects valued at $ 5 million or more did not include any solar projects. Now there are 23. Of the 87 major energy projects listed in the most recent data, 27 were oil and gas, but over 40 were either solar, wind or biofuel.

The developers attribute three main factors to the explosion of solar parks: an abundance of sunlight, a rapid and dramatic drop in the cost of solar technology, and the structure of the Alberta electricity market, which allows companies to sign. easily purchase renewable energy agreements, thus helping with their corporate emission reduction goals.

Construction begins on new solar farm in Alberta, Amazon to buy power

But as municipalities contemplate the tax revenue solar farms will generate, the projects – which can span hundreds or thousands of acres – have advice on a delicate line between hosting a lucrative new industry and the preservation of valuable agricultural land.

Stung by oil companies who have not paid the millions they owe in property taxes or clean inactive wells, municipalities want the province government to ensure that landowners do not find themselves forced to clean up renewable energy projects in the future.

Many advocate some sort of clawback system. On September 1, the Alberta Utilities Commission will require companies to ensure that sufficient funds are available at the end of a project’s life to cover cleanup costs, although the government has not been able to provide the Globe with details on the operation of this system.

Most forecasts indicate that fossil fuels aren’t going away anytime soon, but energy diversification shows no signs of slowing down. Wind turbines have been scattered across the province for years, now government data shows how quickly large solar farms are taking root.

The first detailed solar proposal on the province’s list of major projects emerged in 2015: the Brooks 1 Project, a 17-megawatt facility slated for 74 acres in Newell County, southeastern Alberta.

With 50,000 panels rising from the prairie via the Trans-Canada Highway, it was the first large-scale solar project in Western Canada when it went live in 2017. Last year, the based developer in Vancouver Elemental Energy Inc. got the green light to add an additional 28 MW of capacity.

Even with this expansion, Brooks will soon be eclipsed by a colossal new project under construction near the hamlet of Travers, about 80 kilometers to the southwest.


Energy projects in the lead in Alberta

Annual number of projects, in June, by type

THE GLOBE AND THE COURIER, SOURCE: government

from alberta

Energy projects in the lead in Alberta

Annual number of projects, in June, by type

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: Government of Alberta

Energy projects in the lead in Alberta

Annual number of projects, in June, by type

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: Government of Alberta

Spanning 3,330 acres in Vulcan County, the 465 MW facility will be the largest solar PV project in Canada and one of the largest in the world, according to developer Greengate Power Corp. Amazon.com has already signed an agreement to purchase up to 400 MW. electricity from the site to help offset the online giant’s carbon footprint.

When the Travers project is completed, 1.3 million solar panels will produce enough electricity to power more than 100,000 homes.

It is located on what Vulcan Reeve Jason Schneider describes as marginal, low-production land. But the municipality, like others, is seeking to preserve upper-class agricultural hectares while increasing tax revenues through new renewable energy projects.

West of the Willow Creek Municipal District, Reeve Maryanne Sandberg calls the dilemma a “double-edged sword.” On the one hand, she says, it’s about protecting the land and agricultural crops. On the other hand, it is about protecting the rights of landowners to use their land as they wish.

“Especially right now, when you look at what we’re going through as agricultural producers in a very difficult year, it looks even more appealing to some people,” she says.

For the moment, the Travers site is an ordinary agricultural expanse.

But it is progressing. A handful of rectangular trailers crouch behind a chain-link fence. PCL Construction pickup trucks drive along a gravel road that is now closed to traffic and lined with orange warning signs.

In the distance, the 166 wind turbines of the 300 MW Blackspring Ridge project is lifeless on this warm, calm day.

One of the largest operating wind farms in Canada, it has already changed Vulcan’s tax position, and Mr. Schneider thinks that’s a sign of things to come. He recalls when Blackspring Ridge went live in 2014. At the time, oil and gas were still strong, so the extra tax revenue from the wind project “was just gravy.”

But as the fossil fuel companies moved away, renewable energy developers began to appear – and the county was receptive.


Number of energy projects in Alberta

Annually, from June, by type

john sopinski / THE GLOBE AND THE MAIL

SOURCE: Government of Alberta

Number of energy projects in Alberta

Annually, from June, by type

john sopinski / THE GLOBE AND THE MAIL

SOURCE: Government of Alberta

Number of energy projects in Alberta

Annually, from June, by type

john sopinski / THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: government of alberta

“Without these plans, I would hate to guess how much our taxes would be. I’m pretty sure there would be pitchforks on our front steps, ”he said. “These renewable projects are really what will keep us afloat.”

Blackspring Ridge makes up about 20 percent of the county’s tax base, and Mr. Schneider suspects the Travers solar project will bring in a similar amount. This means that around 40% of Vulcan’s taxes will come from a wind farm and a solar farm.

“It is not unrealistic to think that over the next five years, more than half of our tax base will be made up of renewable energy, and could almost eclipse what we have made from oil and gas. our peak, ”he says.

Two solar projects are currently under construction in the district, two are seeking provincial approval, and the council is discussing three more.

It’s a similar story in the southeast, in the Municipal District of Taber, where two projects are underway and four are either approved, under construction, or about to begin construction. There are also rumors of more developers behind the scenes.

The municipality has also approved more than a dozen small projects for agricultural purposes such as supplying irrigation pumps or buildings, and has just approved two applications for the RenuWell pilot project, which will transform old sites. from oil and gas wells to 1 MW solar installations.

One is around the corner from Molnar’s Farm, which grows vegetables and hosts an annual pumpkin festival. Purple-flowering alfalfa lines an empty section of land, but that belies the fact that the ground was never properly cleaned of hydrocarbons from an oil well that went out of business decades ago.

Power lines running along the field once carried electricity to a pump cylinder on the site. As part of the RenuWell pilot project, they will bring solar energy back to the grid.

Ten years ago, Alberta’s list of large private and public projects valued at $ 5 million or more did not include any solar projects. Now there are 23.Ian Martens / The Globe and Mail

Rural Alberta President Paul McLauchlin says Solar Development has many councils that write bylaws to govern projects. Taber is no different. He also instituted a reclamation bond system for projects on municipality-owned land, so he doesn’t get stuck holding the bill for a possible cleanup.

But there is no requirement for bonds on private lands, which is why municipalities are pushing the province to learn from the growing problem of orphaned oil and gas wells, and are instituting rules now to avoid a similar problem with renewable energy installations.

Walking around his company’s 20 MW Burdett Solar Project, about 45 km east of Taber, BluEarth Renewables Inc. President and CEO Grant Arnold says his company and others take reclamation seriously, including it in contracts with landowners.

The eventual cleanup of renewable sites has nothing to do with oil and gas, he says. Unlike fossil fuel sinks which eventually run out, eliminating no incentive to stay, the solar resource is going nowhere. Parts will be replaced and technology upgraded, but in theory a solar farm can stay in business forever.

“I think we’re lucky enough in Alberta to have a few other resources,” he says. “There are jobs, there is construction and there is support for local communities as oil and gas is in transition. “

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Amalia H. Mercado