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Municipality divided over renewable energy

Press Coverage
September 22, 2023

Landowners in Alberta are not required to allow renewable projects on their property, unlike oil and gas energy development

Cypress County councillors dug in at their early September council meeting and made their opinions clear regarding renewable energy projects in the rural municipality.

Premier Danielle Smith announced a moratorium on regulatory approvals of new wind and solar projects in August, citing requests from regulatory agencies, the Alberta Utilities Commission and the Alberta Electricity Systems Operator.

However, letters from both agencies, which the premier said supported her statements that the regulators’ requested the moratorium, didn’t actually seek such a move.

AUC and AESO wouldn’t confirm or deny they requested the pause when reached for comment.

Regardless of the provincial government’s position, renewable energy development has dominated discussions at Cypress County council as the municipality, in the southeastern corner of the province, has seen multiple wind and solar projects spring up.

Looking south from the St. Mary’s Irrigation District’s Murray Lake at the bottom part of the rural municipality, more than 80 turbines can be seen in neighbouring 40-Mile County with a transmission line running through the region, which is linked to several dozen more near the Cypress Hills.

Most if not all of that development has taken place in the last decade or less with multiple solar projects dotting the landscape of a region that bills itself as the sunniest in the nation.

There are even more projects in development, which will alter the landscape of the region.

“My kind of thinking is you can have a wind tower 10 miles away and it has a much more negative effect than a (confined feeding operation) that’s just over the hill,” said councillor Keith Ritz during a council debate of industry setbacks from residential communities.

“We’ve got those wind towers out at Jenner — they’re the tallest ones in North America — and 20 miles away we can see them all. To me, that’s a much more negative effect and I want something to protect the landowners from that as opposed to something below the hill line that I don’t see, prevailing winds I don’t smell.”

Dozens of wind turbines have sprouted up in Cypress County south of Elkwater in the past five years. Premier Danielle Smith announced a moratorium on regulatory approvals of new wind and solar projects in August. | Alex McCuaig photo
Such comments from councillors have recently been increasing, sprinkled in among agenda topics not directly related to renewable power projects.

But the same September Cypress County council meeting also saw a presentation by representatives from Aura Power and its proposed Peace Butte solar project in the county.

The ability for the company to seed grass underneath the 240-megawatt project covering six quarter sections of cultivated land, which is proposed to also include 100 MW of battery storage, was also questioned because the sandy soil in the region makes it difficult. The ability of the company to provide adequate protections against grass fires was also challenged.

“We’re going to quit all the bullshit now,” said councillor Shane Hok regarding the company’s plan to seed the six quarters with grass, noting the difficulty of doing so in the region.

Fire concerns were particularly stressed by councillor Dustin Vossler, who noted the impact of excessive kochia growth on the risk of fires in the drought-prone region.

“I’m deputy fire chief for the Seven Persons area and I will tell you one thing, I will never put my guys in danger by putting them into a predicament were it to be at a facility with solar panels in it,” Vossler said, suggesting such projects have their own fire suppression systems.

“If a fire was going through there, we’re waiting for it to come through the other side because there is way too much hazard and way too much caustic material in there — we’re not going to deal with it.”

Issues such as whether water runoff to neighbouring farms and ranches would be affected was also raised, as well as how many jobs such projects create and whether changes in ownership will obstruct the initial lease agreements.

Despite the opinions voiced by Cypress council, the only recognized intervener in the AUC regulatory approval process is the municipality. Under current regulations in the province, once an intervener is recognized under the AUC definitions of being directly affected, the project proponent is required to pay for the costs related to the objection.

Unlike oil and gas energy development in the province, landowners are not required to allow renewable projects on their property.

Victor Beda, Aura’s senior project manager, said the Peace Butte project has the approval of the landowner and includes a legally binding lease agreement to remediate the site.

“Nothing is for certain, that’s for sure” said Beda of the possible impacts of the renewables’ moratorium on the project. “But I know we’ve developed a project that’s sensible, a project that follows all of Alberta’s rules, it’s got the least environmental impact that you could have and we have a landowner who is enthusiastic and happy to have us there.”

He added the agreement with the landowner exceeds the current rules in the province for renewable energy projects and noted the farm is 23 quarter sections.

“Nothing helps you farm like diversifying,” said Beda, who added the lifespan of the project is 35 years, which will allow the cultivated land time to rest. He said all disturbed soil will be kept on site and returned as part of the remediation plan.

“I think it will be more productive 35, 40 years from now.”

While renewable projects will take agricultural land out of production, they also provide a stable source of funding to keep farming operations going during difficult crop years, according to Jorden Dye, acting director of Business Renewables Centre Canada.

Hosting a wind or solar project may raise the ire of neighbours but it comes down to a fundamental question said Dye.

“Do you believe you have the right to tell another farmer what to do with their land? These are deals between a private developer and a private landowner and that farmer knows the value of that land, knows what they are getting off of their land and are in the best position to make a decision as to whether or not this is a financial benefit to them or not.”

Dye said there is a risk management component to such decisions and renewables should be viewed as another crop whether it’s on a cereal, pulse, solar or wind farm.

“If that is the concern of the government, how is that the right of the government to tell a farmer how to run his operations?” asked Dye.

Cypress County reeve Dan Hamilton said landowners are in a better position than government to decide how to manage their land but municipalities have a mandate to protect agricultural land.

“We don’t own it, it’s their decision,” said Hamilton. “I do believe we’re trying to do all the best steps we can as Cypress County to help them have everything covered so reclamation is covered so they don’t get hung up on it at the end.”

Asked whether greater transparency in the agreements between private landowners and private developers would ease concerns, Hamilton said agreements should protect the landowner.

“I don’t think we should be involved in it. It’s up to them. As a county, I want to make sure they are covered for the reclamation, for the roads, for everything that’s going into place for this.”

Regulatory approvals for renewable projects in Alberta will be frozen until the end of February, though AUC has announced the current processes for approval will continue.