By Cole Parkinson
After briefing Municipal District of Taber last November, Aura Power was hoping to walk away with a firm commitment from council.
Aura Power was last in council chambers for a development hearing at the Subdivision and Development Authority meeting on November 26 but more information was requested which was brought forward during the SDA’s June 17 meeting.
The main questions posed to Aura Power were around land reclamation, panel composition, emergency response plan, vegetation control, aquifer analysis, wetlands setback, maintenance and a few other things.
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.
With the M.D. experiencing the fallout of oil and gas, reclamation has been one of the biggest questions around solar projects in the region.
“The solar facility we are proposing would have a 25 to 35-year life span. We do have an option agreement and land control in place with TID,” said Victor Beda, project manager for Aura Power. “At the end of life, if we do decide to decommission the facility, we have gone into discussions with companies such as PCL who requested an expression of interest to bid on that type of work. It would require them to dismantle the facility and we would be obligated to return the site back to its pre-construction condition.”
Aura Power has developed from greenfield to operation over 1,000 MW of solar photovoltaic and other clean-tech projects covering all aspects of origination, planning, financing, construction and operation.
With this experience, Beda stated TID is still fully on board with the project moving ahead.
“TID has researched us, confirmed our financial backing, we’ve given them a corporate guarantee and they have looked at Aura’s ability to reclaim the site,” he said. “The materials themselves would have a residual value so you would be able to recycle the galvanized steel racking and we would also be able to send the panels back to the manufacturers for recycling as well.”
In the event the facility reaches end of life and won’t be renewed for further solar development, Beda explained how they would be able to return the site back to how it was before.
A big portion of this was around how they would have the money if the company was not in business at the time of decommissioning.
“In the case of the arrangement we had with TID, an assessment would be done periodically to determine the value of the solar facility. We would also be getting update quotes on dismantling and the reclamation. If the cost of dismantling the facility was more than the residual value of the solar panels, then Aura would make up the shortfall and be responsible (for it).”
Components present in the panels Aura was planning to use were also a concern brought forward by the SDA. While there are different options to use for this project, Beda explained the ones Aura would be using would not have elements that would be detrimental to the land.
“Panels are made up of glass, silicon and metal. There is a small amount of wiring on the backside for the panels and there is copper wiring installed within the racking. (They) will hold the applicable CSA certifications and RSO certifications,” he explained. “One misconception I come across quite often is people talk about the old-style, thin film solar panels and they lump them into the same category as the modern silicon solar panels. The thin film technology certainly uses a number of components that are not great for the land. People talk about cadmium, so these components are not present in the solar panels we are acquiring.”
From the previous development hearing, councillors and those in attendance had major concerns about fires at the facility.
While it was stated previously that contact between the M.D. Regional Fire Service had been made, a more complete plan was brought forward this time around.
Beda explained that vegetation at the site would be more of the fire risk than the panels themselves.
“The solar equipment is not flammable itself, as mentioned,” said Beda. “There would never be a fire started from the solar panels themselves. Really, the concern for us is the surrounding land vegetation and of course, we have a financial motivation to keep the vegetation managed, low growth and to keep it where it is not going to be presenting a fire hazard.”
Continuing, Beda also stated M.D. Regional Fire Chief Brian Schafer had not brought forward any issues with the emergency response plan.
“We have been in discussion with fire chief Brian Schafer and we have developed a fire response plan that we submitted and he has reviewed. We will continue to work with him to make sure we have the latest and greatest techniques.”
With vegetation being the biggest concern with regard to potential fires at the solar facility, Aura Power stated they were committed to keeping it under control to limit the risks.
“Our plan is to keep vegetation low. There is a variety of tools available to us. There are a number of manufacturers that have created tools that we are planning to use to manage the vegetation,” he said. “The number one priority for us is to limit the fire risk.”
He also highlighted the maintenance and cleaning of the panels and the lands.
“Just like the vegetation maintenance equipment, there is a number of components people have built that are purpose-built for these types of installations,” he said, though he pointed out by hand is also an option. “I heard about some concerns regarding garbage pickup in the area and so we will commit to regular garbage sweeps around the surrounding area. Of course, appearances will be a high priority for us.”
Beda also touched on traffic volumes that would be present at the site during construction and day to day operation.
“Alberta Transport has approved our application so they have asked us for additional space at the corner of Highway 36 and Township Road 104 for visibility. A traffic impact assessment was certainly not triggered. The volumes they described to me are far below what is required for traffic assessment. We are talking about 10 large vehicle movements per day during construction and no large vehicle movement during operation. They are telling me the trigger for that is 100 large vehicle movements per day.”
Other concerns Aura Power were hoping to dispel were wind resilience, erosion, wetland setbacks and aquifer impact.
“They rate the panels at a pressure rating of 2,400 pascals which in doing some calculations translates into a sustained ability of approximately 280 kilometres at the angle we are going to install. The racking systems will be engineered to Alberta conditions and provided by manufacturers that have designed and certified the system,” stated Beda on wind resilience.
“We are working with AEP closely to review exactly what they want to be complete. We will be making all of the adjustments AEP requires and we will incorporate all feedback,” said Beda on wetland setbacks and also touched on erosion. “Areas that do see ground disturbance will have erosion control. We are trying to keep disturbance to a minimum.”
In terms of the aquifer, a small sample study has been done but a further one would be completed in the fall.
“It has shown that it is quite a shallow water table at approximately three metres on site. Some of the other surrounding locations are as low as 1.5 metres on site. In terms of disturbance to that shallow water table, we will be using friction piles so it will be a no corroding, galvanized steel. We will only be using helical piles as necessary,” said Beda. “We are working towards dispatching a geotechnical company to do a more detailed analysis which will go behind our desktop analysis.”
With the information provided, the SDA was still hesitant to move forward.
“I would hesitate to close the public hearing until we have that information. I think that is an important component before we move forward,” said Reeve Merrill Harris.
“I would recommend that become a condition of the approval. We can look back on that and review but we would like to move forward. We have put in our application almost a year ago. We know it takes time to review projects and particularity one this size,” replied Beda. “We would like to have an indication of whether or not we should proceed. There is a significant cost attached to these things. Given the information and discussions we have had over the past year, where do we stand? Should we proceed and keep investing? We are fine with providing the full geotechnical evaluation along with the summary prior to construction.”
Others also expressed a disinterest in moving forward without a further geotechnical test.
“If you are asking us to move forward on this, I don’t know that it will be successful,” said Coun. John Turcato.
The SDA elected to close the development hearing and went in closed session to further discuss.
From that, council carried a motion to refuse the application because ‘the site was determined to be unsuitable for the proposed use as it is situated in an area which may be prone to erosion’ and ‘the information submitted with respect to potential effects of the development on the aquifer, including potential impacts to surrounding users of the aquifer, was deemed insufficient.’
Prior to the closed session, Coun. Turcato inquired what would happen if the application was denied.
“The applicant has a right of appeal locally. It is questionable whether that would go to the local authority for an appeal. At that point in time, depending on the results of the appeal, the applicant would have a final decision. If there was an error in law and jurisdiction, they could bring that to the court if they wish,” said Bonnie Brunner, senior planner for Oldman River Regional Planning Commission. “If AUC approves the application, the M.D. is then duty bound to issue a permit. If they do not issue a permit, then the applicant can bring the matter before the municipal government board where there is further deliberation and discussion on the matter.”
In response to the SDA’s decision, Aura Power is going to work toward appealing the decision.
“We are pleased the SDA has accepted almost all aspects of our project. Two additional deliverables were requested which Aura committed to delivering six months prior to construction. This application was initiated almost one year ago, so to avoid an ‘analysis-paralysis’ scenario we delivered a request to close the hearing and for the SDA to render a decision. Despite our reasonable request, the SDA could not move forward. We will move to appeal their decision and work hard to collect the relevant data,” said Beda in an email to the Times after the decision was reached.
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It’s great that the SDA was scrutinizing the fine details of the solar project but along with Aura’s site geotech studies there are thousands of solar farms operating around the world without the issues the SDA brings forward.