By Nikki Jamieson
Concerns over locally proposed solar projects have some residents expressing dissatisfaction over their proximity to the sites.
During their regular Sept. 13 meeting, the Municipal District of Taber met with a delegation, made primarily of White Ash Road residents who would be living in proximity to the proposed Taber Solar Project, something they were not particularly happy about.
“I don’t think any of us want it, we don’t find any benefits to it out there,” said John Nordquist, delegation member. “We’re not against solar power, but put it someplace else.”
“Between the M.D., the neighbours, and themselves, together we could find some place that’s beneficial for everybody, that works for everybody,” said Joe Singleton, delegation member. “It’s not that we’re being closed minded or anything, we’re willing to work. But the location they picked is pretty poor.”
The proposed Taber solar site, better known as the Taber Solar Project, is located just five kilometres north of Taber, in what is considered to be an ideal spot by the developers — BowMont Capital Advisory Ltd. and Canadian Solar Solutions Inc. — as it is just one and a half kilometre away from an electrical substation. There could be 91,000 solar modules installed on the Taber site, on a piece of land that is 190 acres in size.
The site, once completed, would be a 22 megawatt project, producing about 43 gigawatt hours of electricity every year.
BowMont and CSS have chosen the locations of the solar projects based on the proximity to the substations, making it cheaper for them to hook into it to send the generated electricity.
However, living within 2,000 metres of the site are 40 households, with 25 of those located within 850 metres of the proposed solar plant, with some houses being as close as 150 metres from the solar site. To visualize that better, that means 25 people live with 0.85 kilometres of the site.
Given that the population of the M.D. is 7,173 people living in an area that covers 4,204 square km, this makes this particular area one of the most densely population areas — outside of the hamlets — in the M.D. Additionally, the project is in the flight path of the M.D. airport, something that the M.D. has their planners looking into with Transport Canada.
As they live so close to the project, the residents living on White Ash Road have more than a few concerns about the solar site, and came to the M.D. delegation armed with a petition with 54 signatures, requesting that the M.D. council rejects development permits for the site, a copy of which was recommended to be sent to the Alberta Utilities Commission.
“I’m not totally against solar energy or solar farms or anything, but I don’t believe that the technology, at this present time, that the technology is there yet, to support it to the degree you need,” said Isabel Nordquist, delegation member. “I’ve heard that these solar panels will not last as long as you owe for. So, I just have concerns that the technology is not viable yet.”
The delegation cited harm to wildlife as one of the reasons why they opposed the development. According to the delegation, the land that the Taber site would be on is a migratory route for mule deer, Canadian geese and the endangered prairie rattlesnake, and the disruption the site would cause to the area would harm those populations.
Additionally, there will be a fence around the project, which means for wildlife n the road, if there is a car coming there is only one direction they can go.
“They told me the deer will learn to go around,” said Marilynn Singleton, delegation member. “Put up a sign that says ‘Deer go that way’.”
Another major concern was what would happen in the event of a fire. Since when the sun was shining, the solar panels are charging, producing electricity and would always be on, so it would mean that the site would always be live with electricity, so any fire in the area could not be fought with water.
“When they start to burn, there’s no way putting them out. And I don’t know if the fire department is up to the task, of putting a big fire out,” said Ed Sanderson, delegation member. “If a house lights on fire in the daytime when the panels are live, you can’t spray water on them.”
“It’s a question of fire mitigation,” said Bob Wallace, M.D. councillor. “The answer given by our fire chief there, is that it would be the same as a response to a major oil field fire. The fire department will be surrounding the area, not inside the compound.”
With the Alberta government’s plan to phase out coal-generated power in Alberta entirely by 2030 — replacing two-thirds of it with green energy and one-third with natural gas — and their subsequent push for green energy systems, sunny southern Alberta has become an attractive area of investment for companies in the renewable energy sector, due to the investment contracts that government will be dealing out. This point has caused some concern with the residents, who wonder just how profitable the solar site would really be, and how that would effect power bills.
“It seems the only reason that this here is going forward is — according to the land man who came out to talk to us — is because the government is putting money up,” said John.
“If the government wasn’t going to do this, or subsidize this project, we wouldn’t even be having this discussion.”
Based on information from Ontario, solar farms are rarely profitable without some form of subsidy. According to councillor Ben Elfring, when he asked a representative what the break-even point for them would be, unsubsidized, at the Vauxhall open house, he was told it was 15 cents a kilowatt; almost double what the delegation said they pay for power.
While the residents were notified about the project in advance, unlike council, they do not feel that either BowMont or CSS are taking note of their concerns. According to John, they received a call from the landowner of the property the site will go on, saying that the companies wanted to know if they could do something like install street lamps or a walking path to get them feeling better about the project.
To say the least, he was not happy with that.
“I said ‘Street lamps? Are you kidding me?’,” said John. “Bottom line is I told him, ‘Just get the hell out of our neighbourhood, and go someplace else’. And that’s my opinion.
“They were trying to entice us with street lights? We moved to the country for some darkness, we don’t want that.”
As of Sept. 13, there have been no development permits issued for any of the solar projects — Taber, Vauxhall and Hays — being proposed in the M.D. According to Jack Dunsmore, director of planning and infrastructure for the M.D., as solar farms are included under the M.D.’s land-use bylaw, BowMont and CSS have to apply for a development permit from the M.D. as well as one from the AUC.
However, as it is a discretionary use under the bylaw, the permit is appealable whether it is/isn’t issued, by the permit seeker or those who oppose it. The appeal board — separate from the main board of the subdivision authority, who grants the permits — is made up of two council members and three citizens-at-large, one of whom was with the delegation.
During the summer months, open houses had been held for the three solar projects in the M.D., as part of their AUC application. Now that they have held these open houses, the next step in the process is to file for a development permit application, something which they intend to do in the third quarter of 2016, according to the Taber project’s schedule.
“They’ve had their open houses, which is part of their requirements for getting their approvals through the Alberta Utility Commission. They’ve had, three I guess — Hays, Vauxhall and Taber. So they’ve fulfilled part of their obligations on that,” said Dunsmore. “Other obligations they would have is landowner notification, surrounding landowners to a certain degree, I don’t know how far away it is. It’s kind of a mixed up process, but they are in the process. The last we heard, they were going to apply for a permit from the M.D. of Taber… But to date, we’ve had nothing.”
“It’s similar to a well site, what we’re going through,” said Brian Brewin, reeve for the M.D. “We have certain restrictions that we have on it that we can do. The development permit, like we’ve said with the new bylaw, is required, and they have not formally come to us for that. So, again, there will be a process we put through in an open house, and I assume you’ll (the delegation) be part of that process.
“The ultimate approval does not come from the M.D. These processes they have to do, is similar to a well site. It comes through the AUC and the province. All we can do is intervene, give our concerns along the way.”
While the M.D. does have some sway with the AUC on approvals, with the powers of objection and agreeing, as AUC has to take into consideration the wishes of the municipality. When asked by the delegation, Brewin said they are “certainly questioning the location” of the Taber project, adding that they do not have a problem with the other two projects’ locations, but the Taber project location proximity to a high population leads to concerns on whether this is the right place for it.
But while council did not see a problem with the other sites, a Vauxhall farmer did. Accompanying the delegation as the self-described “lone delegation from Vauxhall”, Dirk Geerligs came with a letter to the AUC.
Living only a quarter mile away from the proposed Vauxhall Solar Project’s site, his concerns were the site was on prime irrigated farmland and should be on marginal land instead. Other issues he voiced were property values, noise and health concerns, weed control and who would be, in case of failure, in charge or reclaiming the site.
“The location of the proposed site was decided on because of its close proximity to the Alta link substation at Vauxhall. Not much effort was put into trying to locate other properties,” read Geerligs from his letter to the AUC.
According to Geerligs, the portion of the property the Vauxhall Solar Project would be located on had potatoes growing on it in 2016, and pivots were located there as well.
“They omitted telling us that at the open house,” said Dwight Tolton, M.D. councillor, adding that he asked if there was a pivot corner but was told no. “I don’t know the land like you do, so thank you for telling us that.”
While the solar amendments for the bylaw do say that the M.D. would prefer not to have irrigated land used for solar panels, there is still some discretion on the part of a private landowner, with Brewin remarking that the landowner “has certain rights you have to respect also”.
“I guess, bottom line is, we support solar and the idea, but we certainly question the location of this one,” said Brewin.