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Concerns plentiful for Taber solar project

Posted on November 2, 2016 by Taber Times

By Nikki Jamieson
Taber Times
njamieson@tabertimes.com

It wasn’t clear skies when local residents got a chance to voice their concerns over the Taber Solar Project to its developers’ representatives.

During a regular meeting in October, the Municipal District of Taber welcomed a delegation of concerned residents and representatives from BowMont Capital Advisory Ltd. and Canadian Solar Solutions Inc., who partnered together on behalf of CB Alberta Solar Development ULC (CBA), to discuss the proposed project five kilometres north of the town of Taber. About 40 M.D. residents, the majority of which live around White Ash Road, showed up to the meeting to voice their collective disaproval over the Taber project’s location to the two representatives.

BowMont and CSS have proposed to build three solar power sites within the M.D. of Taber, near Hays, Vauxhall and Taber. Open houses for each project were held over the summer to share information and get feedback on the projects. While discussion and information on the Hays and Vauxhall projects did not lead to any initial issues being raised to council — although the Vauxhall project would later generate concerns on the land being irrigated instead of being marginal land, the Taber project has stirred up some controversy, as a group of residents living nearby the project have problems with the location of the proposed plant.

The proposed Taber site is located just five kilometres north of town, in what the developers considered to be an ideal spot, since it is just one and a half kilometres away from a substation. It is a 22 megawatt project that will stretch across 191 acres, with a 25 year design life.

Last year, the Alberta government announced its Climate Leadership Plan, with the aim of having the province’s power transiting away from coal-power and 30 per cent being generated by renewable resources by 2030. As a result of this announcement, subsequent diversification of energy resources and long term contracts that the government will be offering, BowMont and CSS are investing in solar projects in the province, and are currently planning six solar projects in southern Alberta. The southeastern corner of Alberta has one of the highest photovoltaic (PV) — the conversion of light into electricity using semi-conductive materials — potentials in Canada, with a range of between 1,300-1,400 kWh/kW, which makes it an attractive place to have solar farms. PV potentials in Canada range anywhere from 700-1,400 kWh/kW.

However, the Taber project is also located within one of the more densely populated areas of the M.D., with 25 people living within less then a kilometre of the site. Compared to the other two proposed solar projects in the M.D. — which have few people living around them — the Taber solar site has seen opposition from local residents.

In response to their concerns, Ian Sanchez, managing director of BowMont, and Mark Feenstra, senior manager for project development with CSS, met with the delegation and council.

“We always look for sites where there are little to no directly effected neighbours. In the case of Taber, we couldn’t identify any. So that’s why we wound up here,” said Sanchez.

With the site secured, they were able to conduct their environmental tests and hold public consultations. From the open house during the summer, some of the feedback they received were concerns whether residents could tie-into the project and receive electricity, whether they can hook up to the water source on site, wildlife, and property values.

“I don’t understand how there would not be an impact. We didn’t move out there to live across from that. That’s not why we moved out there,” said Ashley Geeraert, M.D. resident. “We specifically picked a spot that was nothing like that. We just moved here two years ago. We did not move there for that.”

“All we can comment on, is the studies we are familiar with,” said Sanchez, adding that the studies contained testimony from people who live by solar farms. “And both studies have shown that there is no discernible impact on property values.”

“The tie-in for electricity, some of us felt that if this does get pushed at us, and we know we’re going to have a drop in property values, maybe we can entice a potential buyer to buy our house if they didn’t have an electricity bill to pay. And you said by Fortis rule that you can’t supply us power, but you can still pay our power bills every month, that’s not a problem,” said Joe Singleton, M.D. resident, to the delegation’s amusement.

Visual impact was another concern that had been raised. In an attempt to solve the problem, the developers had revised the layout of the project to setback the solar panels 150 feet from White Ash Road, and included a shelter belt for visual shielding of the panels, to be finalized after consultation with local residents.

Another issue was if solar farms had been built in a similar proximity to residents. Feenstra brought up examples from Ontario solar projects, that were as close or closer to residents. However, when asked about Ontario’s Green Energy Act superseding the will of local municipal governments, some residents concluded that it had been forced upon the residents.

Another resident, Ed Sanderson, called “BS” on the thought that there would not be a drop in property values, and the BowMont and CSS know better.

“If you guys say there’s no value drop, why don’t you buy us out and sell them?” asked Sanderson. “I think there’s a 50 per cent drop, and you guys know that too.”

As there would be a fence along one side of the road, the delegation was also concerned about an increase in collisions with larger animals such as deer, as they could be stuck on one side of a road with no where to go if cars were coming from both directions. Ryan Geeraert, M.D. resident, wanted to know who would be cleaning up the property, especially with an increase of roadkill due to a fence on one side of the road and the animals having nowhere to go.

“Typically, on these facilities, we have someone who is there at least once a week, and part of their responsibilities is clean-up of garbage along the fence line. We have heard that concern,” said Feenstra, adding that they are looking into it further.

In Alberta, if BowMont and CSS are successful in their bid for a 20-year energy contract, they will move forward with constructing the project, with Canadian Solar Inc. being the ultimate party responsible for clean-up if the project goes bust. Electricity from the solar project would cost about 15 cents, a stark increase from the approximately 1.7 cents for coal-power electricity, according to Feenstra, acknowledging that power prices will go up, but the project won’t get built if it’s not economically viable, since they would require a government contract.

“So basically, if it wasn’t for Rachel Notley being in power, you guys wouldn’t even be here, basically right? That’s what it boils down to,” said Ryan Geeraert. “If she wasn’t offering you money for this solar thing, you wouldn’t even be in Alberta, right?”

When asked why the site had to be within 10 kilometres of a substation, Sanchez explained once they pass that limit, the conductor can’t carry the capacity of the electrical load anymore beyond 10 kilometres, and they start having communication issues once they move beyond that practical limit. When they looked within 10 kilometres of the substation, they had problems with finding interested parties.

“The nice part of this location if that feeder line is already in place for that substation, it’s a short run, as opposed to going somewhere 10 miles away or 10 kilometres away, to somewhere where it doesn’t have any feeder. There’s another 10 kilometres of linear disturbance basically, across multiple landowners’ properties. So being close and being on an existing feeder eliminates a whole lot of addition development and impact on landowners,” said Sanchez. “We could move to a different county. This is a very attractive site because of that substation; it’s a very attractive site for a solar project.”

M.D. councillor Ben Elfring asked why they couldn’t build on a piece of M.D.-owned property by Taber Lake. According to Sanchez, while as he and Feenstra were not part of the selection process, the companies did look at a piece of land by Taber Lake, but it was not a suitable site, due to migratory birds.

“Those are Alberta Environment constraints, not ours. They don’t like you building adjacent to water bodies,” said Sanchez. “You’re taking up irrigated land, to build a (solar) farm, and you’re not even looking at grassland,” said Elfring. “That’s totally stupid.”

The developers haven’t submitted anything to the AUC yet, and they have only met with them once to discuss their planned projects. However, M.D. resident Joe Singleton was concerned that the AUC knew Taber town council issued a letter of support for the project, finding it “kind of weird that the AUC was looking at the Taber Times, when they didn’t have cause to,” in reference to an Aug. 31 article in the Taber Times. Ashley Geeraert wanted to know what their rights in the AUC process were.

“You can participate, you can let them know your concerns, if there’s enough concern they’ll call a hearing,” said Sanchez. “There’s a lot of avenues for you to participate and make your concerns heard.”

First, BowMont and CSS must apply for the development permit, before they go through the AUC process. In this process, they submit an application to the AUC, which will likely happen in January 2017, according to Sanchez. Anyone who is concerned with the project can write to the AUC, and if they feel that there is enough concern, they will call a public hearing, where these concerns can be voiced. Afterwards, they will either reject or approve the application. However, says Sanchez, according to the Municipal Government Act, if the AUC — consisting of people appointed by the province — approves the application and issues a permit, the municipality cannot override it and must issue a development permit.

“You’re talking about concerns and such, but as a representative for this company, don’t you think this is enough concern to just leave this site alone?” said John Nordquist, M.D. resident. “You’re a private company, that feels it’s alright to come in and disrupt our lives out here. And the only reason you’re here, as it’s been mentioned, is because you’re getting money — our taxpayers money — to support your project, and we got to sit here and fight you guys to stay out of our area.”

In the MGA, the municipality must approve the application in term of it complying with the licence approval and other authorizations. However, the municipality has control over conditions such as roadway access, preference for location on irrigated land; and municipal setbacks, which AUC does not have control over, and the municipality could refuse a development permit based on these factors.

However, as the MGA is under review, via Bill 21, the powers of the municipality may change.

Elfring asked if, in case the project did not pan out and they were stuck cleaning it up, if they would be willing to put up a bond for the site.

“Well, you say this thing runs forever,” said Elfring. “If it goes broke, we’re sitting with oil well sites…and nobody is going to clean them up, it’s up to the M.D. So, why don’t you put up a bond and we’ll take care of it, clean it up when it goes south.”

“It’s not in our practice to put up bonds for clean-up,” said Sanchez. “We haven’t had to at any project.”

For more information on the project, visit http://www.tabersolar.com.

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