By Cole Parkinson
With the Municipal District of Taber subdivision and development authority board holding a public hearing for the proposed Aura Power Big Bend Solar Power Project, residents were able to voice their opinions on the project.
Aura Power is proposing to build a 65-megawatt solar farm north of Taber off Highway 36 and Township Road 10-4 on Taber Irrigation District-owned land and it would feature 220,000 solar panels total with construction being approximately 20 weeks.
“Most of us on this road and in this area did not know anything about this until it was heresay just before the (December 2017) open house at the Heritage. It was told to us when we got there, most of us were not in agreeance with it because we hadn’t talked to or seen anybody. In talking with you (Victor Beda, project manager for Aura Power), you told me you had talked to a lot of our neighbours and that most of us were in agreeance with it. He didn’t talk to anybody else. When you talk about communication and the liability, I find it hard to believe anything you say,” said M.D. resident Twyla Valgardson at the November 26 public hearing. “When I asked who would be responsible in the end for getting rid of these panels, I was told the reason the TID was getting as high of rent as they were was because it would be up to them to disperse them. So it wouldn’t be you, and if the TID didn’t have enough money, it would be us paying for it. We were also told it wouldn’t affect our rates but our rates went up.”
Valgardson also stated there was an aquifer underneath where the solar facility was going to be placed.
“There is a huge aquifer that goes underneath there so when you are tamping, you are possibly disturbing main water which affects a huge feedlot, the vegetation and the animals. What I’ve heard you say is you won’t disrupt the wildlife but what I heard you say is you are going to manipulate the wildlife,” she said. “I think this is setting precedence that our grasslands are not worth as much as your solar panels are worth. If they were worth that much and you made that much, you should be making your own substations away from the community living in that area not putting it right beside us.”
With every speaker, Beda was allowed to respond to any concerns presented.
“It would definitely be on us to reclaim the project,” he said. “I don’t know what is underneath the sandy soils so before construction begins, we will do a full geotechnical analysis. When the timing is right, we will have that done. In terms of manipulating wildlife, what we are doing is, we are doing what Alberta Environment is doing. We are trying to conform to what they tell us to do. It might look like manipulation, it certainly is displacing wildlife. Solar farms do take up a lot of space but we are trying to maximize the use of the space as efficiently as possible.”
A local feedlot owner also had a multitude of concerns with the solar project which would be constructed between two of her properties.
“The TID’s decision to go forward with this was a one dimensional, financial decision. While there may be some short-term financial gains, that could also turn into some long-term financial responsibilities for the next generations to clean up,” said Andrea Stroeve-Sawa.
With solar projects being proposed all over Alberta, Stroeve-Sawa says they were also approached to have one on their property.
“Renewables are so new we don’t have examples of what recovery could look like. The risk with oil and gas is minimal because of the amount of acres it covers. We have oil and gas wells on our land but when doing it, we were only risking an acre or two, when we looked at the solar project the risk is huge, we are risking 200 acres, not two,” she explained.
Stroeve-Sawa also had many issues with the wildlife studies that were completed by Aura Power. She stated they were completed during a particularly dry spell in southern Alberta.
“Many species were observed during this wildlife study, 16 studies of management concern meaning species that were considered sensitive or at risk were observed within the project footprint. The wetland and vegetation assessment provided by Aura Power with their application indicates there are 21 wetlands within the project area. Alberta Environment recommends there be a minimum 100-metre setback from all wetlands. According to their wildlife assessment, Aura Power is looking to bend the rules for these setbacks proposing only a 20 metre setback for wetland 18, 30 meters for wetland two, a 15 meter buffer for wetland one, three, five, 14 and 17, a 70 metre buffer for wetland 13 and 21 and they are actually proposing to build right through wetland 15,” she explained. “It should also be noted the wildlife assessment done for Aura Power was completed in the dryest conditions in recent history.”
Stroeve-Sawa had some harsh words in regard to how she felt Aura Power and TID had been handling the entire process so far.
“This is not a company that has concerns for the environment. Allowing buffer zones of the wetlands to be shrunk is not a good decision for the environment,” she said. “Aura Power and TID have decided that operating with integrity isn’t so important and they have chosen to go ahead with this development. This is showing me this company has no concern for the environment and allowing this project to go ahead without a proper wildlife assessment is not a proper decision for the environment.”
As many farmers are in the vicinity, Stroeve-Sawa says they have had to be incredibly careful in their work and adding solar facility construction will do more harm than good.
On top of that, she also highlighted an increased danger to her cattle if any erosion were to occur.
“Any machinery including a quad is detrimental to the already brittle environment and any type of traffic will create erosion problems once again. When that land begins to erode, all cattle in my feedlot will be at risk for acute interstitial pneumonia. A fatal lung disease in cattle that is brought on by dust and it is not curable.”
Fire concerns were one of the biggest concerns for residents ever since the project was first brought forward. With the close proximity to her property, she estimated that it would take around four minutes for any potential fire to reach their land and that the fire department would have no shot in getting there in that amount of time.
“The fire risk is also increased immensely by the increased motor activity,” she said. “The fire risk alone deems this is not a wise decision. The TID and the M.D. are both elected by the ratepayers and the taxpayers to represent the people in their district. The M.D. now has the opportunity to listen to the taxpayers in this district. We, the taxpayers, do not want this solar project on this piece of land. We are asking you to listen to us. I think we need renewable energy and I think there is another place for it in the M.D. but it is not suited for this land.”
M.D. of Taber Regional fire chief Brian Schafer confirmed their average response time wouldn’t be quick enough to get to the property.
“Our average response time out of Station 4 is approximately seven minutes, which is very good for us to get out of town. Depending on wind and location, that is all a factor,” he said.
Schafer also highlighted the M.D. policy revolving around solar facility fires.
“Our policy is that the Vauxhall Regional Fire Department and the M.D. of Taber Regional Fire Service will respond to solar project fires but at first we take a defensive position to protect the area and property around the building structure. An offensive or direct attack on a solar panel will not commence until the incident commander has 100 per cent verification from the company’s supervisor of the solar farm that the power has been turned off. Even if the power is off, there is still a possibility of stored energy in the panels. If we go into these fires and there is electricity in there, what happens when you mix water and electricity? My guy dies, so we have to make sure the power is off. First thing is life safety, second is property,” explained Schafer. “When they develop their emergency response plan, we as the fire service, we review it to make sure it is suitable to protect not only the perimeter but your property as well.”
Beda highlighted vegetation management as a major source of fire mitigation for Aura Power. He also addressed the wetland issues brought up by Stroeve-Sawa.
“In terms of building right through the wetland, we can still make adjustments to the panels. The rationale for the design process was to put panels, if absolutely required, through areas or to encroach wetlands as long as it was okay with AEP (Alberta Environment and Parks). That 100-metre setback is the minimal recommended setback but it is variable. AEP can evaluate it on a case by case basis,” he said.
Municipal District of Taber council voted unanimously to recess the public hearing. The next meeting has no set date, although Aura Power will inform the board when they can provide the additional information to reconvene.