By Cole Parkinson
As renewable energy continues to make greater strides across Canada, the Municipal District of Taber are continuing to see how best to approach it in regard to placing it on their own land.
With council receiving plenty of interest throughout the M.D., they had a chance to discuss what the next steps would be if they went forward with renewable energy at their policy meeting on June 4.
“We’ve had many requests from various companies, both wind and solar, to locate available projects on our lands. Previous councils have made certain stipulations on that as far as their development. We got close to selling a quarter of land for that purpose at one point and that was redacted back. We are now in a position of deciding on future policy on these matters,” said Brian Peers, director of municipal lands and leases for the M.D.
A big reason for the interest in southern Alberta is due to the large open areas that are subject to both plenty of wind and sun.
The M.D. of Taber currently holds over 80,000 acres of land, though most of it is native grasslands.
“The vast majority of M.D. owned lands are native grasslands through the tax recovery transfer process,” said Peers. “We’ve had a conservation company, the Nature Conservancy of Canada look at our lands to do a bit of an assessment as far as relative conservation value of about 381 quarter sections of tax recovery lands.”
Currently, the M.D. has 345 quarter sections (55,200 acres) of tax recovery native grass, 21 quarter sections (3,360 acres) of tax recovery tame grass, 93 quarter sections (14,880 acres) of M.D. grazing native grass, 22 quarter sections (3,520) acres of M.D. grazing tame grass and 38 quarter sections (6,080 acres) of cultivation.
The review by the Nature Conservancy of Canada was done in 2017 with focus on degree of nativeness, regional and local biodiversity, risk of loss to agricultural conversion, levels of linear disturbance and irreplaceability with 341 of 381 quarter sections ranked as having high or medium conservation value.
In approaching a policy for renewable energy on M.D. lands, Peers had trouble finding similar municipalities due to the M.D.’s position of owning so much land.
“I did do some investigations with other municipalities and irrigation districts just to determine policies they might have had in this regard. Really, we are in a unique situation because we own a lot more land than any other municipality does,” he explained.
In regard to placing renewable energy projects on native grasslands, it may present a challenge if council was in favour as they currently have a no break policy.
“As far as Alberta Environment and Parks goes, their main driver of these developments is not on crown lands and not on native grass,” said Peers and he also answered council questions on if placing solar projects on native grass would be breaking them. “I would consider a solar project on native grass to be impacted to the point of breaking them, yes.”
Council was vocal about their disdain for placing any type of projects on native grasses and some even voiced their opinions that they didn’t want them anywhere on M.D. owned land.
“I don’t think I want to see it on our land,” stated Coun. Jennifer Crowson.
Another big questions surrounding the projects was about reclamation.
“I would like to know what reclamation would look like. Will the land be useable again for production of any kind? If it is sterile, is that something we want to get into when we take land completely out of production?” asked Crowson.
With how far the oil and gas industry has fallen in the past few years, council was worried about what the potential would be for it to happen to the renewable energy industry.
“Without a reclamation planner acquired for renewable energy from the province, in my mind, we would be open for quite a bit of liability for the next generation to clean this up,” said Coun. John Turcato.
As oil and gas has ceased being a big driver for the M.D., Councillor Merrill Harris looked at the projects as a stop gap for the financial shortfalls they are currently seeing from the abandonment of multiple sites.
Even with that in mind, some of council were still aware the projects could potentially be a problem in the future.
“There might be some short-term financial gain that could become some long-term liability or clean up fees,” added Reeve Brian Brewin.
As comparisons were made between oil and gas and the incoming renewable energy, one point was made in regard to reclamation for both.
“I don’t think we should shut the door but I wouldn’t want to see anything broke,” said Coun. Leavitt Howg via teleconference call.
“I don’t believe we are telling oil and gas to stop drilling even though there are some wells abandoned, we’re letting them go ahead.”
Though there are some similarities between the two, there are also some differences, especially in regard to reclamation.
The oil and gas industry has been around for many more years than renewable energy so they have more in place when it comes to processes of recovery.
“The difference, for me, with oil and gas is they do have reclamation rules,” said Turcato.
On the renewable side of things, there hasn’t been many examples of what recovery could look like.
“Being this is a pretty new thing, it’s hard to determine exactly what reclamation is. We haven’t restored too many solar farms. They have with wind and I think they have been somewhat successful in Pincher Creek,” added Peers.
One suggestion made, if council were to go forward with any solar and wind projects on M.D. lands, was to have safeguards in place in case of abandonment of those projects.
In particular, they wanted something in place to spare citizens the financial burden in the case the projects went under.
“There would need to be some certainty that a fund or something would be setup for reclamation so we don’t leave future ratepayers holding the bag for reclamation,” said Brewin.
Another possibility of having M.D. owned projects throughout the region was to place them on land not owned by them. While it is certainly a possibility, it presents some challenges as well.
The biggest being taking away leases from landowners, which the M.D. had done in the past but only a select few times.
“We’re in a position where some of those lands that we could potentially look at would cost those leaseholders as well,” said Crowson.
In the past, the M.D. had negotiated the takeover of leases including with the M.D. shooting range.
Peers said there would be compensation for breaking the lease for the leaseholder but the two would negotiate on the terms.
Discussion then shifted to what councillors would like to do moving forward.
With no current policy in place, council could elect to keep it that way which would mean zero renewable energy projects on M.D. land.
“The province not allowing solar on their own property is a signal to me that I don’t think any government agency should be allowing it, including M.D.’s,” stated Turcato.
Others though, weren’t in favour of completely eliminating the opportunity of pursuing solar and wind projects.
“I’m not in favour of having a zero policy because this is something we need to be prepared for. To close the door on potential, I’m not sure I’m 100 per cent in favour,” said Coun. Tamara Miyanaga.
A motion was made to direct M.D. administration to start drafting a policy and was passed unanimously.