Renewable Energy Pause Ends, Solar Projects Approved in Southern Alberta

The Alberta government’s pause ended March 1.

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Two solar projects have been approved in southern Alberta since a nearly seven-month moratorium on the approval of renewable projects in Alberta was lifted last month.

The Alberta government’s pause ended on March 1, with the province now adopting an “agriculture-first” approach to new renewable projects and establishing 35-kilometre buffer zones around “pristine visual landscapes,” among other changes.

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The Alberta Utilities Commission (AUC) on March 19 approved the 230-megawatt Peace Butte Solar project, as well as a battery storage system, proposed by Aura Power Renewables Ltd. on 332 hectares of private property south of Medicine Hat, in Cypress County.

In its decision, the commission said the project poses a low risk to wildlife and their habitat, and is situated on lower quality agricultural land.

Two days later, the AUC approved the 450-megawatt Aira Solar Project, which will be built by Aira Wind Power Inc. on about 1,800 hectares of private land approximately 35 kilometers southwest of Medicine Hat.

Concern over pronghorn migratory route

While concerns were raised about the proposed development’s effects on pronghorns, birds and snakes, Alberta Environment and Protected Areas provided an “overall low risk rating for the project in relation to wildlife and wildlife habitat.” “, reads the commission’s report.

Professional biologist Cliff Wallis, hired by the group Farmers and Ranchers Against Solar, had argued during a hearing that wildlife researchers consider the area to be an internationally important migratory route for pronghorns, and that adding a solar project there would create an additional barrier for pronghorns. motion.

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“Additionally, C. Wallis noted that recent research suggests that managing pronghorn migration is essential to maintaining the population and that human disturbances to the landscape, such as solar projects, lead to avoidance behavior, reducing the migratory habitat of pronghorns even further,” reads the AUC decision.

In response to the group’s concerns, Aira proposed adjustments to the fence that would allow pronghorns to travel from east to west through the project. However, Wallis said unfenced corridors would be insufficient to support pronghorn movement and opposed approval of the project. At the very least, he said, approval should be postponed until an assessment examining the area’s importance to pronghorns can be completed.

“The commission accepts Aira’s proposed mitigations for impacts on pronghorns and requires a wildlife monitoring program to evaluate the impact of the project and the effectiveness of the proposed mitigation measures,” the commission said.

Aira’s efforts to reduce the risk to birds and snakes were sufficient, the AUC said.

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The commission noted that the project location presents an “elevated” risk that weeds could negatively impact surrounding grasslands, but also found that Aira’s proposed weed management approach is appropriate and that negative effects can be reduced to ” an acceptable degree.”

“The commission also finds the project’s other environmental impacts acceptable given the proposed mitigations.”

The solar project will be built on lower quality private farmland, and the AUC expects that the loss of agricultural use of the project lands will be “reversible” once the solar panels are no longer used to generate electricity.

The Commission rejects the project

The commission also denied another project last month.

On March 22, the AUC rejected an application by Kinbrook Solar, GP Inc. and Solar Krafte Utilities Inc. to build the proposed 450-megawatt Rainier Solar farm southwest of Brooks on about 3,000 acres of private land owned by Eastern Irrigation. District.

Most of the proposed project area was native grassland, and the AUC found that the solar project would have posed “high risks” to wildlife and their habitat.

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“The commission is not convinced that the mitigation measures proposed by the applicants are adequate to reduce potential environmental impacts on wildlife and their habitat to an acceptable level,” the AUC said in its decision.

The three applications were put on hold while the Alberta government worked on new rules regarding renewable energy projects, which were announced on Feb. 28 by Premier Danielle Smith and Minister of Affordability and Public Services Nathan Neudorf. The changes applied to the three southern Alberta projects, which were still going through the review process during the pause in approvals.

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