BY MADELEINE BAERG • ILLUSTRATION BY DOMINIC BUGATTO
Rural Albertans are known for their support of landowner rights and the free market. However, the contracting of farmland to utility-scale renewable energy projects including solar farms has divided communities. Though these projects can create an attractive revenue stream for individual landowners and a lucrative tax injection for municipalities, they can be very unpopular with neighbours. Renewable development is unlikely to stop, but public concern may affect the way in which projects are structured and approved.
MISGIVINGS AND OPPOSITION
When the developers of the proposed Kiwetinohk Energy solar project near Wetaskiwin approached farmer Connie Matson in hopes of contracting some of her acres, she had a very definite reply: absolutely not. She felt so strongly about her position she joined the Stewards of the Land committee created to oppose the project. She’s not alone in her opposition. At the committee’s most recent public meeting on on Jan. 19, nearly 200 people attended to state their concerns about the $320-million project.
“The landowners who have leased their land to the project are seeing dollar signs,” said Matson. “The rest of us see high risks attached and we don’t believe the dollars are worth
Paul McLauchlin, president of the Rural Municipalities of Alberta (RMA), powers his private consulting office with solar energy and calls himself a proponent of the technology. He lauds it as an “amazing, cost-effective way to produce power.” He appreciates the tax dollars renewables bring to communities, especially when oil and gas taxation assessments decrease. Cashflow from land leases can also allow farms to grow and tackle economic pressures or even aid generational transition, he added. However, McLauchlin also said regulations haven’t kept up with the new reality of renewable projects. “These are industrial power projects. There are certainly quite a few concerns that it’s a non-contiguous, non-compatible land use.” Farmers are also generally concerned such projects contribute to pushing the value of farmland beyond their reach.
McLauchlin said the RMA is concerned that under Section 619 in the Municipal Government Act, the Alberta Utilities Commission (AUC) is listed as a quasi-judicial organization, meaning it can make land-use decisions without consideration for municipal planning and without participation of municipalities. He worries the AUC may make decisions about utility-scale solar projects without recognition of the wide-reaching potential impacts to neighbours and local communities. “I always tell people, if you lived in the city and you had house, house, house, industrial project, house, house, house, the community would go insane. For some reason, we’re not treated the same from a land use planning perspective.”
The AUC doesn’t approve all projects. Construction was scheduled to begin on the proposed 150-megawatt Foothills Solar Project near Blackie this summer. However, the AUC in late April turned down the 1,600-acre project. While the AUC noted the project’s economic and greenhouse gas reduction benefits and its potential to facilitate reconciliation between the Crown and the Cold Lake First Nations, its proximity to the Frank Lake wetland conservation area was a risk to birds.
Shannon Sereda, director of government relations, policy and markets with Alberta Grains, said the environmental grounds of the refusal are noteworthy in and of themselves, but the impetus for the refusal, which came about at least in part because of public outcry, could indicate a shift in response by AUC to public pressure.
“We hope to see stakeholders have influence in turning a project because that’s where the challenge has been. [The AUC] has a very, very narrow consultation radius around projects,” said Sereda. That consultation radius is the same that applies to oil and gas well sites. Only those who own land within 800 metres of a project are allowed to be heard during public consultation. This is arguably inadequate for a major solar array, said Sereda.
Alberta Grains supports the right of landowners to do as they see fit with their property but takes no position on the establishment of renewable projects on agricultural land, said Sereda. “Municipalities and the provincial government have very little input,” she added. “We want to find mechanisms to help resolve land-use conflict without interfering in private property owners’ rights. We’re in the early days of figuring out how agriculture and renewables can coexist.”
TOP AGRICULTURAL LAND
The use of farmland for industrial purposes removes these acres from production. “If you look at the projections for future solar projects, it’s a huge amount of land,” said Sereda. Alberta Grains supports the inclusion of regional planning frameworks—Alberta’s land-use planning blueprints—in the project approval process. Rather than land-use decisions being made primarily by the landowner with oversight by the AUC, to address these frameworks in discussions about utility-scale solar projects would allow the public a hand in the decision-making process. As well, these frameworks can enable the Alberta Land Stewardship Act, which allows the Province to provide direction and leadership in the determination of land-use objectives.
“We believe that could be a mechanism to protect prime agricultural land, which must be valued,” said Sereda. “We support the idea that land-use frameworks should be updated and developed because it’s not just solar projects causing land-use conflict. There are abandoned wells and urban encroachment.”
Opinions strongly differ as to whether agriculture and solar can coexist. Few agricultural uses, except for grazing sheep, are compatible with conventional solar panel projects, said McLauchlin. He added solar panels act as giant umbrellas that shield portions of the soil from precipitation while concentrating it into runoff. “The current density designs we’re seeing actually cause soil erosion, changes in the health of soil and changes in moisture and temperature such that soil is sterilized,” said McLauchlin. “Soil is a valuable asset. As rural municipalities, we have quite a few concerns related to soil conservation.”
He sees irony in the intended purpose of solar projects versus their effects when installed on farmland. “In a hotter, drier climate change future, which solar panels are [intended] to combat, we need more agricultural land, not less.”
As orphan oil and gas wells have become a burden for government and landowners, there is concern about remediation costs for abandoned and end-of-life solar projects. “We’re constantly told it’s up to the landowner to weigh the risks,” said McLauchlin. “That attitude flies in the face of the core principles of good land use and good industrial development.”
Heather MacKenzie is the executive director of Solar Alberta, a non-profit that aims to accelerate the solar industry through public education and advocacy with government as well as to connect community and industry. She is not worried projects at the end of their typical 30-year contracts will become derelict. “You don’t exhaust the sun the way you exhaust an oil well.” In most cases, developers will install a new array at the end of the equipment’s 25- to 40-year lifespan, said MacKenzie. She also expects old solar panels will soon be more easily recycled. Solar Alberta and the Alberta Recycling Management Authority are developing the country’s first solar panel reuse and recycling program. “More than 95 per cent of a solar panel is recyclable. We’re way out ahead on this because Albertans are so aware of the orphan well issue and they don’t want a repeat of that.”
GOVERNMENT GUIDANCE SOUGHT
The RMA and Alberta Grains want government to take the lead on land-use designation for solar projects. “I don’t believe there should be a moratorium on [solar projects],” said McLauchlin. He insisted the provincial agriculture and energy departments, through the AUC, must define key criteria or, at minimum, decision-making processes required in the establishment of large scale industrial solar projects on rural land. Rather than use prime agricultural land, the RMA prefers projects be located on brownfield and low-productivity land, and sites be compatible with land-use plans created by adjacent municipalities.
At least a portion of the solar industry agrees. Of Solar Alberta’s 380 members, about 150 are solar or solar-related businesses that include equipment installers and project operators from micro to massive. While the organization calls for as much solar energy as possible on the grid, MacKenzie acknowledged a balance must be struck between renewable energy and various social and environmental needs. To address this, the organization has developed solar siting recommendations. For example, Solar Alberta recommends against development on or near wetlands. It also advises developers avoid the best farmland or co-locate solar panels with livestock or compatible field crops. “There’s no need for green-on-green controversy,” said MacKenzie. “We want to make sure solar continues to be a good neighbour in the province.”
On reclamation, the RMA proposes government adopt a system like that of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which requires a $10,000 per acre bond for reclamation work on renewable installations.
Meanwhile, Alberta Grains is drafting contract guidelines for landowners. “We won’t get involved in individual project consultations, but I encourage farmers to understand their rights around the AUC consultation process,” said Sereda. “It’s the only mechanism that exists.”
A WAY FORWARD
“I don’t believe this is us against them,” said the RMA’s McLauchlin. Though landowners may be frustrated by solar operators, certain companies are pivoting toward agrivoltaics. Agrivoltaic projects differ from conventional solar arrays in that, rather than utilizing a huge number of large panels, these lower density solar projects are purpose-built to align with agriculture. Panels can be slim and horizontal, spread out, even installed vertically as a functional livestock fence. The University of Alberta is now piloting a project in which spinach is being grown under solar panels and Western University’s Ivey Business School will carry out field trials in 10 Ontario locations starting this summer. McLauchlin pointed out such pilot projects are the result of landowner pressure. “The public can change how this is done.”
Some landowners argue the whole concept of solar energy power purchase agreements is ludicrous. They say the purchase of solar credits by corporations to offset their own power use amounts to “greenifying” their image through money alone. MacKenzie disagrees.
Whereas environmental efforts in other provinces are conducted via government regulation and control, support for environmental efforts through power purchase agreements aligns with Alberta’s independent nature, said MacKenzie.
“In Alberta, people generally don’t like you to tell them what they can and can’t do with their land. Power purchase agreements really lend themselves to our culture, to our streak of independence, because … they leave the power in the hands of Albertans to make a deal if it’s a good deal
On Aug. 3, the Government of Alberta paused renewable energy project approvals greater than one megawatt. The AUC will review its project development policy and procedures and resume the approval process on Feb. 29.