By Collin Gallant
Southern Alberta Newspapers
The idea that renewable energy projects are taking valuable irrigated land out of agricultural production is being misunderstood, according to the head of an irrigation district in southern Alberta that leases land for solar projects.
Bow River Irrigation District general manager Richard Phillips told Southern Alberta Newspapers that land and water rights are being well managed, the utility projects provide stable income for his member-owned organization and often, when poor acres are used to house sprawling solar arrays, more productive acres are added.
He believes a government-ordered pause on new wind and solar approvals this fall could answer a number of concerns rural stakeholders have about the utility projects. But the question of taking valuable “irrigated” parcels out of production is already being solved in the marketplace, he said, and leaving no net change.
“It’s an interesting question that shows a real lack of understanding of how the whole irrigation system works,” said Phillips.
The BRID, located around Vauxhall, is home to one existing utility-scale solar project, another approved and one that was put before the Alberta Utilities Commission in July, just before the moratorium came down. It will study reclamation requirements, siting and potential effects on agricultural productivity until the end of February 2024.
Early regulatory work is proceeding in applications however, including the 1,100- acre “Solar Krafte Ranier” project on land owned by the Eastern Irrigation District, and the 875-acre Proteus Alberta Solar project, which would lease land from the BRID, near the Hamlet of Hays.
Phillips said the project involves low quality dry pasture or low quality irrigated cultivated land, and when districts or private producers do so, the existing water rights don’t disappear, but shift to higher quality parcels or sold to other producers in the area.
“The amount of irrigated land doesn’t change,” said Phillips, referring to swaps of sales. “Land is finite but water is even more so and the limiting factor for irrigation in southern Alberta is not whether land suitable for irrigation is available, but the amount of water.”
“There’s no net change in the amount of irrigated land … and in many cases the newly irrigated land is more productive than the land that was irrigated previously.”
In BRID’s case, the lease revenue compared to grazing is “several hundred times” greater when low-quality pasture is converted, said Phillips.
Cypress County is currently studying how to evaluate ag productivity by soil class to potentially use as a road map in the AUC approval process, with councillors debating whether dry crop acres or animal units for grazing should be considered.
Premier Danielle Smith announced in August that the Alberta Utilities Commission will study how the independent regulator considers issues such as reclamation, agricultural impacts, transmission costs and even views – common complaints from opponents of wind and solar projects.
That came down Aug. 3, several days after Proteus formally applied to build the 209-megawatt array on land leased from the Bow River Irrigation District.
Officials with the Texas-based company told the media it was “shocked” and confused about the scope and suddenness of the review, and it would halt new project development until the review was completed.
The “Proteus Alberta Solar One” project would see three blocks of solar panels cover 975 acres, south of the Hamlet of Hays, about 50 kilometres west of Redcliff, in the M.D. of Taber.
It would be coupled with a 60-megawatt/hour battery storage system, and could cost upwards of $300 million to build.
Written submissions on the specific application will be accepted until Oct. 12.