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Province lifts pause on renewable energy projects

Posted on March 7, 2024 by Vauxhall Advance

By Al Beeber
Southern Alberta Newspapers

The provincial government has lifted its pause on the final approval of renewable energy projects.

Any projects moving forward will be undertaken with agricultural lands being a priority, Premier Danielle Smith said Feb. 28.

Smith and Lethbridge East MLA Nathan Neudorf, the Minister of Affordability and Utilities, made the announcement.

Calling Alberta the country’s leader in renewable energy, Smith said the province wants to ensure it has affordable and reliable energy for residents.

As much as 92 per cent of renewable investment in Canada last year happened in Alberta, she said.

“Our unique de-regulated electricity market and competitive tax system mean that we are Canada’s hub for investment and we want the province to remain the jurisdiction of choice for investors,” said Smith.

But growing the renewable energy industry “must happen in well-defined and responsible ways,” the premier said in a conference call.

“That wasn’t happening” which is why the province last August launched a pause on large utility scale renewable electricity projects using wind, solar, geothermal, hydro or bio-based, she said.

The pause was introduced because Alberta needs a reliable and affordable grid, said the premier noting January’s emergency alert showed the importance of that.

“We need to ensure that we’re not sacrificing our future agricultural yields, or tourism dollars or breathtaking view-scapes to rush renewable development through,” added the premier.

The Alberta Utility Commission had 13 applications for review before the pause and another 13 were added during it. The premier expects that trend to continue saying the province must be responsible when approving applications.

“Renewables have a place in our energy mix but the fact remains that they are intermittent and unreliable,” the premier added.

“They are not the silver bullet for Alberta’s electricity needs and they are not the silver bullet of electricity affordability because each new development risks driving up the transmission costs and makes Alberta’s utility bills even more expensive,” the premier added.

The province will prioritize agricultural lands with the AUC taking an agriculture first approach when evaluating the best use of agriculture lands proposed for renewables development.

“Alberta will no longer permit renewable generation development on Class 1 and Class 2 lands unless the proponent can demonstrate the ability for both crops and/or livestock to co-exist with the renewable generation project.”

The province will establish tools to ensure native grasslands, irrigable and productive lands continue to be available for agricultural production, Smith said.

The province will also establish buffer zones of a minimum 35 kilometres around protected areas and other pristine view-scapes as designated by the province.

New wind projects will no longer be permitted within those buffer zones and other proposed developments located in buffer zones may be subject to a visual impact assessment before approval.

“You cannot build wind turbines the size of the Calgary tower in front of a UNESCO world heritage site or on Nose Hill (a prominent Calgary park) or in your neighbour’s backyard,” said Smith.

“We have a duty to protect the natural beauty and communities of our province,” added Smith.

This includes reclamation so developers will be responsible for reclamation costs via bond or security. 

She said it’s imperative that reclamation rules and costs are accounted for before any development starts.

Another duty is to consult with First Nations with meaningful engagement being required before any policy changes for projects on Crown land and those changes won’t come into effect until late 2025.

Any renewable development on Crown lands will be on a case-by-case basis.

And municipalities will now be automatically be granted the right to participate in AUC hearings and be allowed to review rules related to municipal submission requirements while clarifying consultation requirements.

Municipalities will also be enabled to be eligible for cost recovery for participation and review.

She added changes to the transmission regulation are expected in coming months and renewable projects should expect changes in how transmission costs are allocated, the premier added.

Neudorf said “our goal is to ensure that Alberta’s electricity grid is affordable, reliable and sustainable for future generations to come.”

The Minister said he regularly hears from constituents about how expensive their utility bills have gotten.

He said concerns about the grid reliability were highlighted during the January cold snap and emergency alert.

“We knew we needed a balanced and thoughtful approach that considered all perspectives to protect the reliability and affordability of our electricity grid,” the Minister said.

Neudorf said that under the NDP renewable energy development in Alberta became “a free-for-all completely lacking sufficient rules or guidelines.”

He said Alberta is a destination of choice for investments in part because of the government’s commitment to reducing economic barriers. He added the rapid pace of unrestricted renewables growth raised concerns that needed to be addressed.

The AUC inquiry into renewable energy development involved rigorous consultation between August and December which included more than 600 pages of oral and written submissions.

By the end of 2024, the UCP intends to bring forward the necessary policy, legislative and regulatory changes “to set a clear and responsible path forward for renewable project development,” said Neudorf.

“Agriculture is at the heart of Alberta, playing a significant role in our heritage, economy and our way of life,” he noted, adding native grasslands have been preserved by farmers and ranchers since before Alberta became a province and are deeply connected to First Nations.

He said there will be no blanket bans on specific types of land, with the province ensuring renewable projects don’t sterilize agricultural land.

AUC will conduct hearings to determine appropriate setbacks for projects from neighbouring residences and other important infrastructure and will be required to conduct site visits for proposed projects.

Changes won’t be retroactive, applying to project approval starting March 1.

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