A huge solar farm proposed south of Sylvan Lake has some Red Deer County residents worried about the loss of good farmland.
Kiwetinohk Energy Corp. (KEC) hopes to build a 170-megawatt solar project on about 930 acres of private land, 14 km southwest of Sylvan Lake. The $320-million solar farm and its 386,000 panels will be linked to the province’s electrical grid by a 138-kilovolt transmission line.
A power plant application is expected to be submitted between April and June to the Alberta Utilities Commission (AUC), which approves and regulates solar power projects. The review process is expected to take around four months.
Alberta Environment and Protected Areas (AEPA) has reviewed the project and concluded the solar project as “low risk,” says KEC in an email.
Construction could then begin this fall with completion and commercial operation expected to happen about a year later. The project would produce enough energy to power 54,000 homes and offset 172,000 tonnes of greenhouse gases annually.
About 130 residents attended a meeting last week at the Benalto Elks Hall to get an update on the project. A number of Red Deer County councillors attended, and among the speakers was Alberta Environment and Protected Areas Minister Jason Nixon, who is also Rimbey-Rocky Mountain House-Sundre MLA.
Red Deer County Coun. Brent Ramsay, whose division includes the proposed solar farm site, said the scale of the project is a concern to some residents, who are reluctant to see prime farmland taken out of production.
“That’s people’s biggest concern,” he said.
Kiwetinohk says solar projects are sited on privately owned previously cultivated land to protect undisturbed habitat and is in keeping with Alberta’s regulations.
“Kiwetinohk is developing plans for agricultural activities to continue in harmony and coexistence with the solar panels. This emerging field is called agrivoltaics and we seek to be a leader in ensuring ongoing sustainable and productive use of the land,” the company said in an email response to questions.
The small role the county has in overseeing solar power projects also makes some uncomfortable. It is up to the AUC to approve or reject solar power applications, with the county having only a limited role. While the county can impose its own conditions on a project, it has no power to prevent an approved project going ahead.
Ramsay is among county councillors who would like to see another open house held so residents can hear directly from the company about its plans. An open house was held last November in Sylvan Lake, but it occurred on the night of a major snowstorm.
Stan Bell, who lives about eight kilometres from the proposed solar farm, said some farmers wonder what having a solar farm nearby will mean to their livelihoods.
“Especially for the landowners who would be adjacent to this property, it’s loss of land value.
“There’s also the environmental concern. What does it do to the natural habitat? What happens to the migratory paths of the animals and the birds that come through here.”
The company says the project site avoids all high-quality native and critical wildlife habitat. One bird nest and wetlands will require appropriate protective measures during construction.
KEC says studies have shown solar farms can neighbouring property values by up to five per cent. “We are not aware of any study that shows impact to neighbouring agricultural land value.”
Bell sits on a committee of five landowners in the area who are monitoring the project and want to highlight the impacts of losing some of the province’s best farmland. The committee was formed after a smaller gathering in Benalto last fall.
Some also wonder what sort of glare tens of thousands of solar panels would give off and how will they eventually be decomissioned and the land reclaimed, he added.
KEC has undertaken a glare assessment to assess the potential for glare at nearby residences or along roads. It will be included in its AUC application, along with a number of environmental studies, which will include wildlife surveys and habitat mapping.
The company says it will also develop a decommissioning and reclamation account that will be funded with energy sale revenues.
“Kiwetinohk has an established guideline to fund this decommissioning and reclamation account an amount sufficient to fully cover decommissioning and reclamation costs at the end of the project life.”
The number of solar farm proposals has some wondering whether it is all moving too quickly, said Bell.
“When you look at the province’s solar energy plans for the next two years, if you use what they want to achieve it’s 57,000 acres of land. That’s a piece of land 30 miles by 30 miles. That’s huge.
“We’re not against renewable energy,” he said, but there are still many unanswered questions about the impact on the farm economy and rural communities.
“There are just so many questions and people do not have answers.”