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BHEC-RES Alberta G.P. Inc. Forty Mile Wind Power Project (AUC Decision 22966-D01-2018)

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Wind Turbines – Consultation – Environmental Impacts – Noise Control


In this decision, the AUC considered whether to approve an application from BHEC-RES Alberta G.P. Inc. (“RES”) to construct and operate a wind power project located in the County of Forty Mile No. 8 in southeastern Alberta.

The AUC approved the RES project, finding it was in the public interest having regard to its social, economic, and other effects, including its effect on the environment.

The Project

The RES proposed project consists of 115 wind turbines with a nameplate capacity of 3.465 megawatts (“MW”) each, for an overall generation capacity of 398.475 MW. The project also consists of a new substation, designated as the Forty Mile 615S Substation, for connection of the project to the Alberta Interconnected Electric System.

Other Applied-for Power Plants in Area

Contemporaneous with RES’ application, the AUC received applications for two other wind energy projects in the County of Forty Mile No. 8, from Forty Mile Granlea Wind GP Inc. (which is registered as Suncor Energy Inc. and referred to as Suncor) and Capital Power Generation Services Inc. (“Capital Power”). Suncor and Capital Power’s proposed project areas were in close proximity to the RES project.

As discussed below, the AUC had to determine how best to consider the cumulative noise impacts and potential cumulative environmental impacts from the three projects.

Legislative Scheme

RES applied to construct and operate the project pursuant to sections 11 and 14 of the Hydro and Electric Energy Act (“HEEA”).

Section 11 of the HEEA requires AUC approval prior to constructing or operating a power plant, and section 14 of the HEEA requires AUC approval prior to constructing or operating a substation.

The AUC explained that when considering an application for a power plant and associated infrastructure, it is also guided by sections 2 and 3 of the HEEA, and section 17 of the Alberta Utilities Commission Act (“AUCA”). Section 2 lists the purposes of the HEEA, including the following:

(a)     to provide for the economic, orderly and efficient development and operation, in the public interest, of the generation of electric energy in Alberta;

(b)     to secure the observance of safe and efficient practices in the public interest, in the generation of electric energy in Alberta; and

(c)     to assist the government in controlling pollution and ensuring environment conservation in the generation of electric energy in Alberta.

Section 3 of the HEEA requires the AUC to consider the purposes of the Electric Utilities Act (“EUA”) when assessing whether a proposed power plant and associated infrastructure is in the public interest under section 17 of the AUCA. The purposes of the EUA include the development of an efficient electric industry structure and the development of an electric generation sector guided by competitive market forces.

Section 3 of the HEEA directs that the AUC will not consider whether the proposed power plant

… is an economic source of electric energy in Alberta or to whether there is a need for the electric energy to be produced by such a facility in meeting the requirements for electric energy in Alberta or outside of Alberta.

Accordingly, the AUC did not take into account the potential need and cost of the project.

Section 17(1) of the AUCA states:

Where the Commission conducts a hearing or other proceeding on an application to construct or operate a hydro development, power plant or transmission line under the HEEA or a gas utility pipeline under the Gas Utilities Act, it shall, in addition to any other matters it may or must consider in conducting the hearing or other proceeding, give consideration to whether construction or operation of the proposed hydro development, power plant, transmission line or gas utility pipeline is in the public interest, having regard to the social and economic effects of the development, plant, line or pipeline and the effects of the development, plant, line or pipeline on the environment.

The AUC considered its earlier decisions and explained that it assessed and balanced the negative and beneficial impacts of the specific project to determine public interest.

Consultation

Rule 007 stipulates that an applicant must conduct a participant involvement program before a facility application is filed with the AUC. The AUC noted that an effective consultation program might not resolve all landowner concerns.

The AUC found that RES designed its participant involvement program to ensure all potentially directly and adversely affected persons and all relevant and interested stakeholders understood the project, had an opportunity to voice concerns and to have those concerns addressed where feasible. The AUC considered the design and execution of RES’ participant involvement program was consistent with the purpose of consultation and Rule 007 requirements.

The AUC found that Ms. Jenkins (an affected party) was aware of the project and had an adequate opportunity to have her concerns addressed through the consultation process.

Environmental Impacts

Project-Specific Environmental Effects and Mitigation

RES retained Golder Associates Ltd+. (“Golder”) to prepare an environmental evaluation report for the project (the “EE Report”). The EE Report described the potential effects of the project on wildlife, which included direct habitat loss and alteration, habitat avoidance due to sensory disturbance, and increased wildlife mortalities. The EE Report included mitigation measures to minimize the project’s effects to wildlife, including developing a Post-Construction Monitoring and Mitigation Plan (the “PCMM Plan”) The PCMM Plan described how the post-construction monitoring and mitigation that RES proposed to implement during construction and operation to understand the project’s direct effects on birds and bats, assess the effectiveness of mitigation, and determine whether additional or modified mitigation was necessary.

Vegetation, Wetlands, and Surface Water

The AUC found that the project’s potential adverse effects on native vegetation and wetlands were significantly mitigated by the siting of the project infrastructure away from native grasslands, nature pasture and, with only very limited exception, directly in the wetlands.

The AUC found that the adverse effects on wetlands were acceptable from Alberta Environment and Parks’ Wildlife Management’s (“AEP WM”) perspective. AEP WM was aware of the justifications for the relaxations of the wetland setbacks from roads when issuing the Renewable Energy Referral Report. The AUC found that RES’ approach to siting roads and collector lines was reasonable in the circumstances.

As a condition of approval, the AUC directed that RES abide by all of AEP WM’s requirements, recommendations, and directions outlined in AEP WM’s Renewable Energy Referral Report and any additional commitments made in RES’ responses to information requests from AEP WM.

Amphibians

The AUC noted RES’ commitment to curtailing vehicle traffic along project access roads following major spring, summer, and fall rainfall events to reduce potential mortalities of northern leopard frogs and western tiger salamanders. The AUC found that this would reduce potential mortalities of northern leopard frogs and western tiger salamanders, which tend to emerge during and following major rainfalls.

The AUC required RES to complete amphibian surveys following AEP WM survey methodology prior to construction in situations where ground disturbance may occur within 100 metres of potential amphibian breeding pond habitat, including the northern leopard frog and western tiger salamander.

Birds and Bats

The AUC found that RES implementing operational mitigation was sufficient to bring the project’s estimated corrected mortality rate below an average of four bats per turbine per year. The AUC considered this sufficient to address project-only impacts on bats. However, the AUC found that it may not be sufficient to address cumulative mortality impacts on migratory bats associated with the operation of existing and potential future wind power projects in the area.

With respect to the project’s potential mortality impacts on bats and the long-term risk to migratory bat populations posed by wind power, the AUC considered that it would be useful and preferable to apply a “precautionary approach” where possible. The AUC found that this principle could be applied in this instance by requiring RES to implement a robust bat mitigation strategy and monitoring effort during operation.

Decommissioning and Reclamation

The AUC found that in its EE Report, RES confirmed that landowners would be consulted on decommissioning activities and that it will abide by the reclamation requirements of the Conservation and Reclamation Regulation under the Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act, which requires RES to obtain a reclamation certificate from Alberta Environment and Parks at decommissioning.

The AUC found that RES provided adequate assurance regarding the costs of decommissioning and reclaiming the project and that it would be sufficiently funded. This was based on RES’ estimate of the costs of decommissioning and indication that the proceeds from salvaging project infrastructure would cover a significant portion of the expected costs of decommissioning and reclamation.

Cumulative Impacts

The AUC considered that the nature and extent of the potential cumulative impacts on birds and bats identified by AEP WM would only be known if and when other projects were constructed in the area. Because of the uncertain nature of the potential cumulative impacts that might arise, the AUC considered that a working group, comprised of the project proponents in the area and AEP WM, could be an effective means to consider and address potential cumulative effects that may arise.

The AUC required RES to form a working group with Capital Power and AEP WM to share wildlife information amongst the proponents and with AEP, and to implement mitigation measures as necessary to address any such cumulative effects. The AUC considered that it would be useful for all the proponents of other projects proposed in the area to participate in such a working group, including Suncor.

Accordingly, the AUC imposed the following condition of approval:

  • RES will abide by any requirements, recommendations, and directions provided by AEP WM, whether in the context of a working group or otherwise, including any additional monitoring and mitigation that AEP WM considers necessary to address cumulative effects occurring from two or more projects within the local area, as defined by AEP WM.

Noise Impacts

The AUC accepted that:

(a)     the cumulative noise levels from the project operating in its planned operating scheme with third-party energy-related facilities complied with applicable Rule 012 requirements; and

(b)     the project was predicted to meet the daytime and nighttime permissible sound levels at all receptor locations in the project study area.

With respect to the Noise Impact Assessment (“NIA”) prepared for RES’ project, the AUC found that:

(a)     the equipment used to conduct the field noise measurements of the third-party energy-related facilities met the requirements of Rule 012; and

(b)     the acoustical model (the 2017 version of the CadnaA software package) and input data used to predict the cumulative sound levels complied with the AUC’s ruling on modelling parameters for the three projects and met the requirements of Rule 012.

The AUC required RES to conduct post-construction comprehensive noise studies and an evaluation of low-frequency noise at specific receptors under representative operating conditions and in accordance with Rule 012.

Projects Must Implement Noise Mitigation Measures in Accordance With the Order in Which They Were Deemed Completed

With respect to cumulative noise effects, in Decision 23049-D01-2018, the AUC stated:

Once an application is deemed complete, the Commission will issue a notice. In these circumstances, the notice will specify the date when the application was deemed complete. Any applications deemed complete after that point must take into account the preceding projects (those for which notice of application has been issued) for the purpose of calculating the cumulative sound level in Rule 012, and incorporate “proposed facilities” into NIAs and any applicable noise mitigation plans.

The AUC confirmed that the projects must implement noise mitigation measures in accordance with the order in which they were deemed complete. The RES project was deemed complete on February 3, 2018, prior to the Capital Power project, which was deemed complete on March 6, 2018. The AUC explained that this means that should RES’ project come into operation and result in cumulative noise levels exceeding Rule 012 permissible sound levels, it is incumbent upon Capital Power to implement mitigation measures to address those effects.

Visual Impacts and Shadow Flicker

The AUC found the visual impacts resulting from shadow flicker produced by the project were likely to be low.

Alberta currently has no legislation, standards or guidelines in place regarding shadow flicker. However, RES and Ms. Jenkins referenced a German guideline which recommended that exposure to shadow flicker be limited to a maximum of 30 hours per year and a maximum of 30 minutes per day. RES indicated that the project complied with this guideline even though it was not required to do so.

RES stated it would consider mitigation measures such as micro-adjustments to turbine placements, tree planting, and window coverings to minimize the impact of shadow flicker. RES specifically committed to making micro-siting adjustments to turbines T111 and T112 to further reduce the potential for shadow flicker at Ms. Jenkins’ residence.

The AUC acknowledged visual impacts resulting from the lights associated with the project; however, the decision of which turbines are lighted and to what extent, rests with Transport Canada.

The AUC noted that to minimize the visual impacts caused by lighting to the greatest extent possible, RES committed to using the minimum number of lights required by Transport Canada on the turbines, as well as the minimum number of synchronized flashes per minute and flash duration.

Summary

The AUC approved RES’ wind power plant application pursuant to sections 11 and 14 of the HEEA, subject to conditions.

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