By Nikki Jamieson
The future of the Hays Solar project is now in the hands of the Municipal District of Taber’s Subdivision and Development Authority.
On Monday, a Development Hearing was held for the Hays Solar Project, one of three solar projects being proposed for the Municipal Distinct of Taber.
On behalf of C&B Alberta Solar Development ULC (CBA), BowMont Capital & Advisory Ltd. and Canadian Solar Solutions Inc. have partnered together to jointly develop a solar power plant in the hamlet, better known as the Hays Solar Project.
According to their presentation at the hearing, the proposed plant is located on approximately 174 acres of land, centred at the quarter section SW 18-13-13 W4M, three kilometres southeast of Hays. It will feature 92,000 solar modules and 11 inverter and transformer stations, and produce 43 gigawatt hours a year, or enough energy to power 6,000 households.
The Hays project, if the development permit is approved and they are awarded a contract under the Alberta Infrastructure Request for Proposals, would begin construction in the second quarter of this year, with a planned in service date in the first quarter of 2018.
Although the project did not garner the opposition or controversy as the proposed Taber Solar Project, residents of the area have voiced concerns about the impact of the project.
In the event their contract expires, gets broken or the two companies go bankrupt — whether it be 40 or three years down the line — there is a concern in regard to who is responsible on cleaning up the site, or reclaiming it. According to Ian Sanchez, managing director of BowMont, and Mark Feenstra, senior manager at CSS, their investors would be ultimately responsible then for cleaning up the site. They argued a solar site was not the same thing as an oil well, as the infrastructure would still be worth something, as opposed to an oil well which loses its value once the project is completed.
“Under the lease agreement, it is the companies’ obligation to decommission and reclaim the site,” said Sanchez. “If for some reason, something happened, to the company, these projects are financed by large, credible lenders who would step in and fulfill this obligation. Worst, worst case scenario, let’s say this vendor was not around to do it — and these are big banks, insurance companies, people like Manulife — it’s extremely unlikely, but let’s say they weren’t; then, as Mark (Feenstra) said, this should be an incredibly valuable asset at the end of 20 years, because there was a lot of capital invested to construct it, and its operating and maintenance costs are negligible. As long as electricity is still being produced in the province, and there is a reasonable price being paid for it, then this asset should be incredibly valuable.”
Even in the event the price was not reasonable, the salvage cost of the infrastructure would exceed the reclamation costs. However, responding to a question that was posed to them, in the event that every companies associated with the project all go bankrupt — something Sanchez called a “doomsday scenario” — it would then be the landowner’s responsibility to clean up the site. Feenstra pointed out there also wasn’t the same environmental risks as associated with an abandoned oil well.
Reclamation will be just like the construction process, expect the disconnect will be in reverse. The biggest job will be removing the underground cables.
While like with any construction site, there will be noise during the construction period, although they will work only during daylight hours, and would probably be off most Saturdays and Sundays. During operation, the transformer will be the only equipment that will produce noise, and they will comply with the Alberta Utility Commissions rules on it.
An inquiry was made about whether they would be willing to leave some shrub down during construction, instead of ripping everything out, to help prevent erosion. A preliminary geotechnical assessment of the site found no slope stability or surface erosion issues, and once vegetation is established, minimal erosion is expected. A site-specific erosion and sediment control plan will be developed to help mitigate those problems.
After construction, low-growing native plants will be planted in the site and allowed to grow, as the edge of the panels will sit one and a half feet off the ground. Dwight Tolton, M.D. councillor and member of the subdivision and development authority board, advised them to see the M.D.’s agriculture fieldman, Jason Bullock, for a current list of native species, as some grasses don’t grow in the municipality anymore.
“Obviously, the first priority is to get a good base of vegetation there, so that weeds don’t become an issue, but that transition period from cultivated to getting that grass base there is going to be closely managed,” said Feenstra.
Weed control will be conducted by mechanical means to the extent possible, and abide by weed notices. However, they were warned that they would have to stay proactive on it, in case weeds on their property cross over to their farming neighbours.
“I know by reading the letters and talking to people that it is a concern, and obviously, if weed control doesn’t work by mechanical means, then we will look at chemical means,” said Feenstra. “Basically, in line with the regulatory requirements of doing that, but we’re not averse to chemical treatment as well.”
“I think our landowner will be one of the first ones to complain to us if there is an issue, he’ll make sure we comply.”
Last year, CBA had confirmed several field surveys and requirements with AEP. The surveys conducted include sharp-tail grouse, spring bird migrations, fall bird migration, breed birds, burrowing owl, amphibian visual and raptor nests. The AEP Referral Report, released on Dec. 20, 2016, found that the Hays Solar Project posed a low risk to wildlife and habitat.
But during the hearing, the issue of ground squirrels was brought up. As Alberta Crown lands are grassland, and is home to the pests, residents are concerned that the project site could bring them into nearby farmland. They are looking at recommendations to prevent them from getting into the facility, such as fences, and other controlling measures such as poisoning, shooting or trapping, the former two which are not ideal.
“Trapping is, from our perspective, a little more ideal, but probably a little less effective then the other two methods,” said Feenstra. “As part of our operations plan, that is something we need to look at.”
Wallace said that fencing would also keep out natural predators, which is a concern of residents. One suggestion to mitigate that was to put nesting sites around the platforms to attract predatory birds, said Feenstra, adding though it would be hard to measure the effectiveness of it, or if they’ll get a bird for an extensive period of time.
Water runoff would not be an issue, as the panels would not be tightly stacked together in a row. There will be clusters of panels that sit three metres wide, with about three feet between them and the panels slanted on a 35 degree angle, which will allow for absorption into the ground. There will be an inch of space between each module.
The modules will be installed on racking systems creating tables, with pile foundations for the racking systems extending three to three and a half metres below the surface, 12 metres apart. Helical ground screws, five inches in diameter will be in less then five per cent of the site area, and electrical collector systems in trenches up to 1.2 meters below the surface. The preliminary geotechnical assessment found that about one per cent of the study area has high water tables with poor drainage, and is primarily moderately well-drained upland moraine. Any further assessment during the final design will include installing groundwater monitoring wells to refine ground water level, and the preliminary storm water management plans indicates that they can maintain or improve on the quality or quantity of any runoff.
Although the land is irrigated, the landowner is moving the pivot to irrigate another part of the property, which Feenstra said worked out great for him as, due to the slope and spot on the property, he had higher pumping costs by irrigating that spot.
The development committee was quick to warn that should a fire start on the site, the regional fire departments would treat the scene as an industrial fire, and will not come on site to put it out, focusing on containing the fire and putting out any perimeter fires that spring up in its wake. Feenstra said that they would be contracting out a fire service to take care of any fire, remote monitor the site for fires and similar situations, and their emergency management plan would look similar to an oil and gas well once it is created. Bob Wallace, M.D. councillor and development authority board member, said that a plan will likely be a requirement if the development application is approved.
“Fire mitigation is a really big factor here,” said Wallace. “The local fire departments treat industrial oil and gas situations as surround the area only, and the thing on site is totally on your control, and there will be no local fire departments entering the industrial site. So, if the fire is going on in there, it’ll be up to you guys to mitigate that, and a plan as to how that is going to happen is going to have to be in place with our fire departments, because they will pick up the fires on the outside of the boundary, but not within.”
Ron Huvenaars, a farmer in the Hays area, inquired about how they would handle volunteer canola. As he and other neighbours have worked together in the past to ensure that this issue remains a non-problem, he is worried that, if left unchecked, it could contaminate hybrid canola crops in the neighbouring fields.
“Your response to weed control is not sufficient, I would say. Volunteer canola is a timely matter, based on field inspections that we have to get done. So I was hoping for a protocol in place before things get ahead,” said Huvenaars. “Canola isn’t a noxious weed sort of thing, it would be a neighbouring thing, I guess, kind of a thing for things in the area, so you would never get a weed notice on canola. However, it will effect all the neighbouring farms, or it has the potential to effect all the neighbouring farmers.
“We have a certain window, for inspections to go through. And if we fail the inspection, we’re going to lose the crops.”
This problem is something that is new to them, Feenstra freely admits, but they will work with farmers to come up with an appropriate set of protocols and implements for them to handle the issue.
“On the volunteer canola, if there is a protocol that’s obviously something that not our core business, and we don’t quite understand as well, but we’re more then happy to at least get our heads around what the processes is and what you need as a neighbour,” said Feenstra. “There’s probably some learning there.”
The development authority requested a 30-day extension to make their decision. The project will be discussed during their Feb. 6 meeting, and a decision should be made by Feb. 21.