By Cole Parkinson
With a new solar bylaw in place, Keith Hirsche of RenuWell brought forward a few hurdles it has brought for their solar projects.
At council’s regular meeting held on July 27, Hirsche not only brought forward some issues with the bylaw, but he also updated councillors on where the project was. The RenuWell project will see small-scale solar projects placed upon abandoned oil and gas sites, with two locations already chosen in the M.D. of Taber — one near Barnwell and the other near Fincastle.
“We presented the development permit application to the SDA (Subdivision and Development Authority) on the fifth of July and I’m very grateful for the positive feedback we received. The development permits are proceeding with the proper oversight but as part of that presentation, we also provided some feedback on the new solar bylaw. At the end of that, we were invited to make a presentation to council to give that perspective again,” started Hirsche. “So what we will be doing is building two projects, one megawatt, at each location. One in Barnwell at the Molnar farm and the other in Fincastle at the Layton farm. Irrican will be the owner of both sites.”
The project has been in development for several years, and Hirsche is reporting things are picking up steam as we head into the last third of 2021.
“At this point, we have our interconnection approved by Fortis, we are in the process of getting the Community Generation approval from AUC, which is basically just the permission to get the meter paid for and so on. We’ve done our public consultation noise studies and so on. We have the reclamation certificates, either in place, at the Molnar site, which was accelerated, or in progress at the Layton site, and we submitted this development permit application on July 5. We’re planning construction for what will look like the beginning of next year.”
Expanding on where the two sites are currently, Hirsche explained the Barnwell location required a bit more work as it was close to a couple of residences — which required setback waivers.
“The Molnar location was a little bit unusual. We required a setback waiver to be a little closer to the road centre, which would allow us to be in the pivot corner. We were granted that exemption and I’m very grateful for that. Just sort of a view of what that site will look like — it will cover about four acres and have a total investment of about $1.4 million,” he said. “The Layton site is a little bit easier. We didn’t require a setback waiver. However, two residents were within the 300 metres, which were identified in the bylaw and we received written consent waivers from those two residents to local the site. They are about 250 metres from the location.”
With council updated on the two sites, Hirsche also shared how the solar bylaw, which was carried in December 2020, has affected the projects.
While Hirsche was in favour of the majority of the bylaw, there were a few lines in the bylaw that has required the group to jump over hurdles.
“I’m very much in favour of the structure of the bylaw. I see the need for it, and I think that the M.D. has done a great job, along with Oldman River Regional in putting this together. I want to touch on one part of it that specifically impacted us. That is, within the bylaw, we have Class B, which is really designed for micro-generation projects, or projects that are self-consumption. Then we have Class C, which is designed for the utility-scale projects,” he started. “You can see there’s a lot of additional work that is required for the Class C designation.”
Class A sees “a total generating capacity of less than 150 kilowatts (kW) that is primarily intended for the sole use and consumption on-site by the landowner, resident or occupant”, Class B is “a total generating capacity of at least 150 kW but no greater than five MW that is primarily intended for the sole use and consumption on-site by the landowner, resident or occupant” and Class C is “energy that is directed into the provincial electrical grid transmission or distribution system for off-site consumption or commercial sale, or a solar energy system that does not meet the definition of Class A solar energy system or Class B solar energy system.”
While both are small-scale projects, under the new bylaw the RenuWell site near Fincastle is now considered Class C, which leads to several additional issues for the group.
“So, if we look at the Layton site, we’ve fallen into the Class C designation. We’re under one megawatt, 990 kilowatts of generation capacity. We’re going to cover about a little over five acres of land, 2,600 modules and a total investment of about $1.6 million. Now, under the provincial regulation, anything under one megawatt is granted a series of exemptions. It’s granted an exemption under the Alberta Environment Parks and Wildlife survey requirements, it’s also granted an exemption under the AUC power plant permit application process, which makes it exempt from Rule 7 requirements. Many of the requirements, which are currently under the new solar bylaw, are identical requirements to what’s under AUC Rule 7,” added Hirsche. “Just to do a comparison, under the current bylaw designation, anything that is micro-generation is classified as a Class B. Now, these are projects where the electricity that is generated is used on-site by the owner of the power plant, and it can be anything up to five megawatts.”
Hirsche also brought forward an example of the Green Acres Hutterite colony near Bassano who have a two-megawatt generation facility that uses 15 acres of land, 7,500 modules and an investment of around $5 million.
“Because it was micro-generation, it received the same exemptions the AUP Wildlife survey, the power plant exemption and the Rule 7 exemption, which is consistent with Class B for the current solar bylaw,” added Hirsche.
He also brought forward an example of a utility-scale project near Brooks that generates five megawatts, covers 74 acres, and has a total investment of $34 million.
“Because of the size and potential impact of the project, it was required to meet the AUP Wildlife survey requirements, an AUC power plan permit and it had to follow all of the specific rules according to AUC rule 7.43.”
“So, if we make a comparison between the proposed site at Layton’s versus the Green Acres micro-gen site, you can see they are on a very similar scale,” continued Hirsche. “The Green Acres site is larger. Now with the more modern modules, we’re able to put more generation capacity on a smaller footprint. Also, we are generating about half of the generation capacity, but you can see in terms of its consultation impacts, its wildlife impacts, environmental impacts and community impacts, these would be very similar projects.”
“Under the current structure of the solar bylaw, there is not an exemption for small power plants for anything under a megawatt. That means we have to effectively go through all of the Rule 7 requirements for these small power plants,” said Hirsche. “It’s really an issue of weighing the relative impact of these larger-scale projects, which you are beginning to see a lot of in the municipality.”
Hirsche also brought forward how projects like RenuWell will be beneficial for not only the M.D. but also other municipalities with abandoned wells.
“There are many particular advantages with these smaller, Renuwell-type projects on these abandoned oil and gas sites. Under the current regulation it makes it extra critical complication in approving these sites,” he said. “There’s definitely opportunity to do more of these sites in the M.D. and it’s really an issue from our side of being able to streamline the approval process so it’s in line with provincial regulation.”
To provide some direction to council on what Hirsche would want to be changed in the bylaw, he did provide some recommendations.
“The recommendation that I would like to make is we provide the same small-scale solar exemption in the bylaw as what is currently available on the provincial regulation. The reason I am making this request is that, if this doesn’t happen, these small projects — and we’re in a very unique situation with the RenuWell project. That is due to our collaboration and partnership with the M.D. of Taber,” he added. “Due to the work we did together in the Community Generation Capacity Building Project, we already template and a lot of work we had done together, which enabled us to, within a fairly reasonable time period, to put together the development application.”
He also explained how small-scale solar projects have limited funds and adding more hoops to jump through would lead to groups looking elsewhere.
“There really isn’t a budget within these projects to do the work which was required under the current bylaw structure. What this potentially could do is a disadvantage to the small-scale projects, which have both an advantage in terms of taking less footprint within the community.”
Council stated they appreciated the feedback as it allows them to review the bylaw now that it has been put into practice.
“You’ve identified some areas that are barriers to what you’re trying to do here. That’s helpful because until somebody goes through the process, you don’t know if there are barriers. So, having gone through the process now, you’ve identified some things that make it more difficult. We can certainly have a look at it,” added Reeve Merrill Harris.