Canada: Environmental Aspects Of Wind And Solar Projects In Alberta

Last Updated: February 9 2018
Article by Nick Bryanskiy, Stephanie Ridge and Jamie Salsman

In 2015, Alberta adopted a Climate Leadership Plan and set an ambitious goal of eliminating coal-fired generation and replacing it with at least 30 percent of renewable generation by 2030. According to the Alberta Electric System Operator, there are 20 operational wind power plants and one recently energized solar facility in Alberta. As of January 2018, there are 62 wind, 75 solar and 2 storage facilities proposed to be connected to the grid in the next three years. Alberta's "Renewables Rush" involves most incumbent generators, oil and gas majors, as well as European and U.S. renewable energy companies, facing highly competitive markets, decreased subsidies in the European Union and uncertain energy policies in the United States.

In this blog, we will provide an overview of key regulatory approvals and environmental considerations relevant to wind and solar projects in Alberta. We will further address the decommissioning and site reclamation requirements specific to renewable sites in a future blog.

First, to successfully permit, construct and operate a wind or solar project in Alberta from the environmental perspective, proponents need to take a 360-degree view of the project, including all stages from design, public consultation and siting, through permitting, construction and operation, to decommissioning, remediation and site reclamation. Environmental issues are not limited to the siting and permitting stages. In fact, they continue to evolve throughout the project life cycle (including operation, upgrades, decommissioning and site reclamation) and extend beyond wildlife to landowners, other affected stakeholders and various land use applications.

Second, by their nature, solar and wind projects are power plants and industrial facilities, and the provincial regulators consider and approve them as such. Apart from air emissions, the environmental impacts of wind and solar power plants are generally similar to those associated with conventional power plants. These renewable energy facilities may equally result in adverse impacts on wildlife and wildlife habitat, soil, water, wetlands and groundwater, etc. There are also secondary environmental impacts from infrastructure supporting wind and solar projects, such as access roads, transmission and distribution lines and substation equipment required to connect these plants to the grid.

In addition, wind and solar projects may result in unique environmental impacts specific to the resource (e.g., flicker and shadow effect, turbine ice shed, solar panel glare, potential battery leaks, etc.) and new regulatory frameworks and standards are being developed in real-time to address these challenges. A few examples of regulatory standards that are expected to be implemented over the next few years include the development of reclamation standards, reclamation security requirements and regulations for renewable projects on Crown lands.

Regulatory Approvals and Legislation

Depending on their nature, design and location, Canadian wind and solar projects may require multiple permits and approvals under the federal, provincial and municipal jurisdiction. In Alberta, the environmental approvals at the provincial level are issued by two regulators with complementary jurisdiction.

Regulator: Alberta Environment and Parks (Alberta Environment)
Legislation: Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act, Wildlife Act, Water Act, etc.
Directives: Bat Mitigation Framework for Wind Power Development (2013); Areas of Wildlife Habitat Sensitivity Map, Wildlife Directives for Wind and Solar Energy Projects (2017), etc.

Approvals:

  • Renewable Energy Referral Report (required for the Alberta Utilities Commission to issue an approval to construct and operate a power plant).
  • Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act approval, if applicable —required only for "thermal" power plants, e.g., concentrated solar may be considered "thermal".
  • Environmental Impact Assessment screening (Alberta Environment may direct a full assessment in exceptional circumstances), if the project is proposed on federal lands or within a prescribed wildlife area or migratory bird sanctuary, a federal environmental assessment may be required under the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, 2012.

    • While federal regulatory requirements are outside the scope of this blog, a project proposed on federal lands or within a prescribed wildlife area or migratory bird sanctuary, may require a federal environmental assessment under the Canada Environment Assessment Act, 2012.
  • Water Act approvals, if applicable (e.g., wetlands impacts as part of construction).
  • Reclamation certificate, if required.

Regulator: Alberta Utilities Commission (AUC or Commission)
Legislation: Hydro and Electric Energy Act
AUC Rules: Rule 007: Applications for Power Plants, Substations, Transmission Lines, Industrial Service Designations and Hydro Developments and Rule 012: Noise Control

Approvals:

  • Approval to construct and operate the power plant—obtained by power plant owners.
  • Permits and licences to construct and operate transmission facilities required to connect the power plant to the grid, if applicable—obtained by responsible Transmission Facilities Owners.
  • Notice of discontinuance of operations is required to decommission the power plant (e.g., see AUC Decision 21437-D01-2016 authorizing TransAlta to decommission its Cowley Ridge Wind Farm).

Environmental Considerations

Canadian wind and solar projects experience different levels of regulation and environmental issues across the country. For instance, the environmental profile of these projects in Alberta or Northwest Territories would be fairly different from mature renewable energy markets, such as Ontario. In addition, there are significant differences between the environmental footprint of wind and solar projects and they require a different level of environmental assessment.

In terms of environmental impacts of wind and solar projects, both Alberta Environment and the Commission focus primarily on avoiding and mitigating risk to wildlife and its habitat. Therefore, siting of the proposed wind and solar projects remains the most important consideration for the regulators. As part of their preliminary desktop review, project proponents are required to fully understand and consider the applicable environmental sensitive areas, setbacks, applicable survey buffers, timing and other requirements, which are set out in the Wildlife Directives for Wind and Solar Energy Projects and Wildlife Habitat Sensitivity Map issued by Alberta Environment in 2017. While the regulators are familiar with wind projects, which have been part of Alberta's regulatory landscape for over two decades, solar projects may include new assessments and additional requirements (e.g., the requirement to prepare and submit glare reports).

Although there is no utility-scale battery storage in Alberta, we expect that these applications will be introduced to the grid in the near future, which may raise various environmental issues (for instance, related to potential soil and groundwater contamination). We also expect the development of wind and solar projects on former industrial and contaminated sites (similar to Sun Mine Solar in British Columbia), which may add another layer of complexity to the regulatory review completed by Alberta Environment and the Commission.

Decommissioning and Reclamation of Wind and Solar Projects

As end-of-life remediation and reclamation liability has evolved to become the top priority for the Alberta Energy Regulator in the oil and gas context, Alberta Environment and the Commission require details regarding the proposed decommissioning and site reclamation of wind and solar projects. In the absence of a reclamation standard for wind and solar, the Commission stated that it would review and approve reclamation plans for wind and solar power plants, if no such standard is adopted in the future. The Commission also recently indicated that it expected the Government of Alberta to issue a Ministerial Order requiring project proponents to provide reclamation security for solar projects. In the future, Alberta may consider setting up a statutory framework similar to the Alberta Orphan Well Fund and Association to address end-of-life liability for wind and solar power plants.

In our next blog, we will further address the decommissioning and site reclamation requirements for wind and solar projects in Alberta (e.g., whether concrete foundations and cables could be left in place below grade; what happens to the supporting infrastructure; whether these sites can be repowered or used for other purposes, etc.).

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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