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Mega-solar farms okayed, denied

Posted on April 4, 2024 by Vauxhall Advance

Southern Alberta Newspapers

Another major solar power facility in southern Alberta has been approved after new rules for agricultural productivity, reclamation and visual impact were instituted by regulators, and the first has also been declined.

On March 21, the Alberta Utilities Commission approved the Aira Solar proposal to place panel arrays on 4,500 acres of land near Highway 887 in the County of Forty Mile, about 10 kilometres south of the Highway No. 3 junction.

On March 22, the AUC denied approval for the Rainier Solar farm, southwest of Brooks, that cannot be built on 3,000 acres of land leased from the Eastern Irrigation District because most of the project would sit on native grassland.

Developed by Alberta-based Solar Krafte and purchased by Kinbrook Solar, a subsidiary of U.S. firm Black and Veatch, the proposed $700-million facility would have produced 400-megawatts of power in peak conditions.

It was formally submitted in October – halfway through a seven-month moratorium on new approvals – with developers arguing the land had been previously disturbed by intense oilfield development and would bring tax revenue to Newell County and lease income to the EID.

The AUC ruled that the effect on wildlife on the grasslands could not be properly mitigated. It estimated oilfield-related disturbance at a total of 10 acres, and revegetation at 250 acres.

In Aira’s case, a decision had been expected in mid-August after hearings last spring heard opposition from an area land owner group, Farmers Ranchers Against Solar (FRAS) that the project would be an eyesore, was located on “valuable” cultivated land neighbouring a large expanse of grassland.

The change would disrupt the overall habitat in the area, FRAS representatives argued in hearings in May and June.

Weeks before the decision was due, the Alberta government ordered a seven-month pause on renewable approvals while new regulations for agriculture use, clean-up and public participation were developed. That ended late last month, and the AUC approved the project, agreeing with the developer that the land productivity was “severely” limited and rated at Class 4.

As well, an existing private agreement with the land owner was sufficient to ensure reclamation.

The permit calls for construction to be complete no later than the end of 2026.

That approval mimics one issued earlier for the Aura Peace Butte Solar Farm, located near the Black And White Trail, south of Medicine Hat in Cypress County.

That 230-megawatt, plus battery system, facility is located on dry wheat fields considered “Class 3 or lower” soil type.

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