By Cole Parkinson
After last year’s open house to inform the public of a proposed solar project, the developers were back in council chambers giving updates to the Municipal District Subdivision and Authority Board.
Aura Power is proposing to build a 65-megawatt solar farm north of Taber off Highway 36 and Township Road 10-4 on Taber Irrigation District-owned land.
“Aura Power Renewables is a joint partnership venture between two companies, Aura Power UK and IB Vogt in Berlin,” explained Victor Beda, project manager for Aura Power at the M.D. SDA public hearing on Nov. 26. “As far as Alberta goes for Aura Power Renewables and the partnership, there are nine locations in development. All of them are located in the most productive areas of Alberta.”
The project near Taber has been titled the ‘Big Bend Solar Power Project’ which would feature fix tilt panels and have access from Highway 36 (depending on approval from Alberta Transportation), Township Road 10-4 and internal access roads.
There would be 220,000 solar panels total with construction being approximately 20 weeks with work Monday to Saturday during daylight hours, though they hope to do light/quiet work on some Sundays.
Upon the open house held last December, nearby landowner comments expressed concerns of wildlife impacts, loss of grazing lands, loss of native prairie grasslands, ecologically-sensitive lands, soil erosion, dust, fire emergency management, aquifer impacts, reclamation, traffic/road maintenance, and property value.
In terms of the land selected, Beda says a number of factors contributed to their decision to pursue the TID land which was highlighted as the most attractive for Aura Power.
“The number one attribute we look for is good grid infrastructure, we need to be fairly close to the substation. We need to have the previous infrastructure in place and in this case, we are tied into the distribution system with Fortis Alberta,” he said. “Once we selected a site, we engaged with Alberta Environment and Parks (AEP). We had an initial consultation to determine what the land was like if there were any red flags with the land.”
Access to the land was another big factor for the site selection and with numerous options available, the decision was fairly easy for the company.
The company also had to complete several studies including wildlife, wetlands and vegetation.
“AEP advised us which studies were required and the Alberta Solar Directive has a very clear regiment of wildlife studies that need to be completed. They are quite a bit more strict than other types of generation projects,” continued Beda. “We also completed a wetland delineation and an area vegetation survey. Ultimately what we are trying to do is get an AEP referral letter.”
In regard to wetlands, the findings showed there were 21 wetlands on site. Most of the wetlands are located in the northwest quarter of the property. From the various studies, a few concerns were found.
“Some of the key findings, there are 26 species of management concern, there are no sensitive special raptors that require large setbacks and there are two non-sensitive raptors on-site. The two non-sensational raptors require 100-metre setbacks,” said Beda.
In order to try and mitigate any potential damages to the land and animals in the area, the group is working on a plan to move forward as carefully as possible.
“We are going to make sure we construct in the late fall and throughout the winter. We are also going to maintain existing vegetation on-site as much as practical. We are going to conduct things such as nest sweeps prior to maintenance and operation activities and with the non-sensitive raptors there is a 100-metre buffer,” stated Beda, who also highlighted the fact qualified biologists will be on site during and after construction of the facility.
With the goal of achieving an AEP referral letter, the process has become a longer destination over the previous few years.
According to Beda, the usual turnaround time for solar project letters of recommendation is two weeks but with the influx of projects in the province, AEP has stated times have been pushed to 10 to 12 months.
Fortis Alberta would be the service provider for the project and Aura Power has already completed a generator application.
One of the biggest factors of the early process for Aura Power was providing consultation to nearby landowners in the area. On top of the public hearing, Beda says Aura made it a priority to meet face-to-face as much as possible with people in the vicinity.
“Our goal was to get out there and see the public, meet them face-to-face as much as we could. The Alberta Utility Commission asks you to do a public engagement campaign, they don’t require an open house but they do require personal consultations. A lot of people are doing it over the phone but what we wanted to do was as much face-to-face consultation as possible,” he said.
The organization went to houses to tell people about the project, sent mail-out notifications to people within 2,000 metres of the project and met everyone within one-quarter section.
Of the people met, Beda reported there were 23 stakeholders in the quarter-section zone with 12 met face-to-face, seven by phone and four could not be contacted.
Throughout M.D. council’s discussions surrounding renewable energy projects, one of their biggest hangups has revolved around reclamation of projects.
Beda stated that detail has been worked upon in the contract with TID.
“We have a reclamation detail in our contract with TID. Aura will follow a statutory guidance that may be required at the time of decommissioning, 25 years down the road,” he said.
With the contract with TID, Deputy Mayor Tamara Miyanaga questioned if they were able to view the document.
“That is something kept in confidence with TID, I’m not at liberty to release those details,” said Beda, though he did say TID have stated they are available to talk with anyone who has concerns.
“The long-term impact on the M.D. is a big concern for me. What the reclamation in 25 years looks like compared to today is valuable for the board to understand that,” replied Miyanaga.
Reeve Merrill Harris, who participated in the public hearing via teleconference call, asked if there was a possibility of having a reclamation bond in place.
While Beda could not approve that, he did state he would bring it back to the directors at Aura Power.
Other council questions were around fire mitigation in the project area.
“Your fire mitigation plan doesn’t really have much in it, what is it? Or are you just making it up as you go along?” asked Coun. Murray Reynolds.
While the specific details were sparse in the presentation, Beda says details will be worked on in the future when the timing is right to meet with the M.D. Fire Service as no consultation has happened yet.
“We will have communication avenues established with the fire department and medical personnel, hopefully, it is not required, but if it is there will be communication established. We will also have appropriate fire extinguishing equipment on site,” said Beda.
One of the major items pointed to towards fire mitigation was vegetation control within the solar farm.
With more information needed to continue, the board voted unanimously to recess the public hearing with the next meeting having no set date, though Aura Power will inform the board when they can provide the additional information to reconvene discussion.