A renewable energy company that plans to build a solar farm in the MD of Pincher Creek hosted community stakeholders Tuesday at an open house in town.
Evolugen, an affiliate of Canadian-based Brookfield Renewable Corp., invited residents within an 800-metre radius of the proposed project one week before the open house on March 28. Company representatives meanwhile had in-person conversations with residents within a 400-metre radius, as per provincial regulations, according to project spokesman Mike Peters.
The proposed Sunrise Solar Project has cleared initial regulatory hurdles at a time when renewable energy projects are proliferating across southwestern Alberta. Evolugen says the project will inject $140 million in local capital spending, but observers, including Rural Municipalities of Alberta president Paul McLauchlin, have cautioned that unrestrained development for renewables could disrupt local food-security networks.
The project aims to generate enough solar electricity to power the equivalent of about 28,500 homes every year, although Peters said the company intends to sell the energy to a corporate buyer through a power purchasing agreement. Evolugen hopes to deliver the juice by installing more than 210,000 photovoltaic cells on 575 acres of privately owned, cultivated land near Highway 507, northwest of town limits.
The landowners intend to raise sheep on-site if the project goes ahead, Peters said. Tristan Walker, energy project lead with the town and MD, said sheep are suited to solar projects because their constant grazing effectively mows grass without kicking up dust or rocks.
Make hay while the sun is shining
Southwestern Alberta is ripe for solar energy due to its prevailing clear skies and its long summer days. The Pincher Creek area is relatively flat, allowing for solar farms on industrial scales.
Peters acknowledged that Sunrise would be a fairly big project, but “it’s certainly not the biggest” in the region.
Walker, who has no involvement with Sunrise or Evolugen, broadly concurred.
“In terms of solar farms, [Sunrise would be] a little bit smaller than a lot of projects that have gone through lately,” especially in Vulcan County to the northeast, he said.
Today’s photovoltaic cells generate power year-round, regardless of temperature, and can be adjusted to resist strong winds, Walker and Peters said.
Snow tends to melt off solar panels, especially because they’re designed to absorb light and heat. Photovoltaics inevitably reflect some glare, and Peters said Evolugen was working on a glare mitigation program for the benefit of local residents and motorists on Highway 507.
The company anticipates that Sunrise could generate about $140 million in local spending, the bulk of which would pay for solar panelling and construction costs, Peters said.
Evolugen would pay municipal taxes to the MD, while the farm would likely support two full-time positions post-construction, Peters said. Renewable energy isn’t subject to Alberta’s royalty scheme for non-renewable energy resources owned by the Crown.
Who allows the Sunrise?
The RMA has consistently advocated for rural municipalities who say they want to be more involved in land-use decisions for all energy projects within their jurisdiction, prompting a conciliatory response from the Alberta Utilities Commission, which independently regulates the province’s utilities sector.
Food producers generally oppose fragmenting agricultural land for industrial development, but many producers welcome renewable energy projects on their land for the money the projects bring in.
“It’s obvious that utilizing [renewable] sources of energy is going to be an important part of our energy mix going forward,” the RMA’s McLaughlin told Shootin’ the Breeze shortly after a proposed wind farm near the Waterton Biosphere stirred controversy in Cardston County in mid February.
In determining whether or not utility projects are in the public interest, the AUC “makes land use decisions in rural Alberta, [without] considering incompatible land uses, food security, and other issues,” McLaughlin said.
Alberta Environment and Protected Areas signed off on Evolugen’s baseline environmental study late last year, ruling that Sunrise would pose a “low risk” to local wildlife and wildlife habitat, but provincial regulations don’t require assessments of potential disruptions to food security.
The AUC adjudicates projects on a case-by-case basis and has not yet ruled on the Sunrise farm. The regulator’s decisions “will prevail” when project approvals conflict with decisions by local governments, according to an FAQ page on the AUC’s website.
“The AUC encourages, appreciates and values municipal involvement and input in its regulatory decision-making process around energy projects and encourages their participation through its application rules,” a home-page bulletin states.
The proposed site falls within an urban fringe where the town and MD are obligated to consult each other on proposed developments, as per their intermunicipal development plan bylaws.
In order to be successful, project proponents would need MD council to rezone the Sunrise site for industrial use through a land-use bylaw amendment, according to Roland Milligan, the MD’s chief administrative officer. The amendment and subsequent permitting decisions would need to be referred to a joint IMDP committee, Milligan explained.
Solar energy doesn’t produce greenhouse gas emissions, but unmitigated heat absorption through solar panelling can fry topsoil to the point where disturbed land can’t support agriculture.
Evolugen hopes to get AUC approval by year’s end.
Evolugen hasn’t scheduled any follow-up public consultations in Pincher Creek or the MD, but Peters said the company will continue to engage stakeholders.