Solar Power Plant – Facilities Application
In this decision, the AUC considered whether to approve a power plant application (the “Application”) from Aura Power Renewables Ltd. (“Aura”) to construct and operate a 75-megawatt (MW) solar power plant designated as the Fox Coulee Solar Project, and to interconnect the power plant to the ATCO Electric Ltd. electric distribution system (the “Project”).
The AUC found that approval of the Project was in the public interest having regard to the social, economic and other effects of the project, including its effects on the environment.
The proposed power plant would consist of approximately 271,000 solar photovoltaic modules, and up to 60 inverter transformer units with a nominal rating of 2,500 kilovolt amperes each. The power plant would also include 30 lithium-ion battery cell modules. Underground feeder lines would be installed to connect the power plant to the existing ATCO Electric distribution feeder lines. Aura anticipated construction would begin in the fall of 2019, with a completion date in the fall of 2020.
Sections 11 and 18 of the Hydro and Electric Energy Act states that no person could construct or operate a power plant or connect a power plant to the interconnected Alberta system without the AUC’s approval.
This was the first occasion the AUC had to decide upon a power plant application that included a battery storage component. Neither the legislative scheme, nor the AUC’s rules specifically addressed battery storage. However, because the storage component of the Project was included as a component of the Application, the AUC considered the implications of the battery storage component in that context.
In accordance with section 17 of the Alberta Utilities Commission Act (“AUC Act”), the AUC must assess whether the Project, including the battery storage component of the power plant, is in the public interest, having regard to its social, economic and other effects, including its effects on the environment.
The AUC also had to determine whether Aura met the requirements of Rule 007: Applications for Power Plants, Substations, Transmission Lines, Industrial System Designations and Hydro Developments and Rule 012: Noise Control.
Rule 007 requires an applicant to conduct a participant involvement program (“PIP”) that provides information about the Project to parties whose rights may be directly and adversely affected by it. The AUC was satisfied that Aura’s PIP provided parties with sufficient information to understand the nature of the project, identify areas of concerns and engage in dialogue with the goal of eliminating or minimizing those concerns.
The Project was proposed to be located on 380 acres of privately-owned cultivated land north of the Drumheller airport.
The Solar Opposition Participants Group (“SOP”) made an argument regarding the change in use of land. The AUC found that there was no basis upon which to conclude that the proposed change in land use is contrary to provincial or municipal laws or policies. The AUC found that an adverse social or economic effect would not result from a change of the land use from agricultural to electric power generation.
Both Aura and the SOP filed a copy of an easement agreement made in 1968 between the then owner of the Project lands and the Town of Drumheller which created an airport safety protection zone. The AUC found that no portion of the solar panel array or any other element of the Project would be located on the 8.10 acres that comprise the easement lands.
Emergency Response Planning and Fire Prevention and Response
Aura did not provide an emergency response plan when it filed the Application with the AUC. The AUC found that while Rule 007 may not require an emergency response plan, the unique topography surrounding the Project site as well as concerns expressed by stakeholders throughout the PIP warranted emergency response planning by Aura. Consequently, the AUC found that should it decide to approve the Project, it would impose as a condition of approval that Aura develop and finalize a site-specific emergency response plan in consultation with all local emergency responders and stakeholders.
Solar Glint and Glare
Aura stated that although Rule 007 did not require it to provide a solar glint and glare study as part of a power plant application, it did so in response to stakeholder concerns. Nonetheless, the AUC found that the effect of solar glare was expected to be minimal. This finding was made in part on the basis that the Project’s solar panels would include standard anti-reflective coating.
The AUC found that the Project presented an incremental risk in circumstances of an emergency landing when compared to the current undeveloped state of the land north of the Drumheller airport. Despite this risk, the applied-for design was nevertheless reasonable from a flight safety perspective the design retained adequate and acceptable forced landing areas that could be used in the event of an emergency.
Visual Impacts and Mitigation
The AUC found that Aura’s commitment to identify and implement tree screening or other suitable screening for affected residents, in consultation with an agrologist, was an acceptable approach to mitigate the visual effects of the project.
Vegetation, Weed and Dust Control and Overland Water Flows
The AUC found that, should it decide to approve the Project, it would impose conditions of approval regarding the development of a vegetation control plan and a dust control plan, both of which Aura had committed to develop. The AUC accepted Aura’s assertion that the Project’s solar panels were not expected to restrict the overland flow of water from the Project site to residential property.
The AUC noted that concerns over property value impacts require specialized expertise and evidence for the AUC to conclude that a given project will have an adverse effect on land and property values. No such evidence was filed in this proceeding.
The AUC found that the noise impact assessment conducted by Aura met the requirements of Rule 012 regarding the permitted sound levels at affected receptors. A condition requiring a post-construction comprehensive sound level survey was therefore not warranted.
The AUC was satisfied that, with diligent application of Aura’s mitigation measures, construction and post-construction monitoring, implementation of any additional mitigation measures directed by Alberta Environment and Parks and implementation of the AUC’s conditions of approval, the potential adverse environmental effects could be adequately mitigated.
Concerning reclamation, the AUC noted that the Conservation and Reclamation Regulation was recently amended to specifically address the reclamation of solar projects in Alberta. Solar projects are now expressly subject to the reclamation obligations set out in section 137 of the Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act. Operators of renewable energy operations are now required to obtain a reclamation certificate at the project’s end of life.
The AUC noted that battery energy storage is a new technology and there are potential environmental concerns related to the replacement and recycling of degraded battery cells. Improper disposal of battery cells could result in significant adverse environmental effects. Consequently, the AUC found that should it approve the Project, it would impose as a condition of approval that Aura confirm that it has selected a battery supplier that has a recycling program compliant with applicable environmental protection laws and established best practices.
The AUC found that Aura’s application to connect the Project using underground feeder lines met the technical requirements of Rule 007. Rule 007 requires minimal information for a connection order application if the project is to be connected at voltage less than 69 kilovolts.
Finalized Equipment and Design
The AUC noted that its review of the Application, and associated findings, were based on Aura’s submission of generic equipment. These findings could change dependent on Aura’s final equipment selection. Consequently, the AUC found that should the Project be approved, it would impose as a condition of approval that Aura file a letter with the AUC three months before construction of the project after making its final equipment selection. The letter was to include the make, model, and quantity of the equipment and include an updated site plan if the equipment layout changed.
The AUC found that Aura satisfied the requirements of Rule 007 and Rule 012 and that in accordance with section 17 of the AUC Act, approval of the Project and the interconnection was in the public interest having regard to the social, economic, and other effects of the project, including its effect on the environment.