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BER Hand Hills Wind GP Inc. – Amendment to the Hand Hills Wind Project, AUC Decision 22843-D04-2020

Link to Decision Summarized

Facilities – Wind Power Project


In this decision, the AUC approved an application from BER Hand Hills Wind GP Inc. (“BER Hand Hills”) for amendments to a previously approved but not yet constructed wind power project designated as the Hand Hills Wind Project.

Application and Interveners

BER Hand Hills, pursuant to Approval 22843-D02-2018 and Permit and Licence 22843-D03-2018, has approval to construct and operate the Hand Hills Wind Power Plant and the Highland 572S Substation (collectively, the “Hand Hills Wind Project” or the “Project”) in the Delia, Alberta area.

BER Hand Hills applied to the AUC for approval to amend the turbine technology, as well as the number and locations of turbines, used for the project. Specifically, BER Hand Hills sought to construct 29 Siemens-Gamesa 4.5-145 wind turbines each with a capability of 4.5 megawatts (MW) for a total capability of 130 MW. BER Hand Hills also requested approval to amend certain specifications of the substation.

The AUC provided notice of the application and received statements of intent to participate from a number of landowners who coordinated their participation in the proceeding as the Hand Hills Landowner Group (“HHLG”). The HHLG requested that the AUC deny the application or alternatively impose a number of conditions on the amended project.

Background and Amendment Application Details

The Hand Hills Wind Project was originally approved in 2012. Ownership of the Project was later transferred from Joss Wind Power Inc. to 1712610 Alberta Ltd. (“BluEarth”). The power plant was previously approved to consist of 34 Siemens SWT-2.3-101, 2.3-MW wind turbines. BluEarth filed an amendment application in 2017 but transferred ownership of the project to BER Hand Hills in 2018. BER Hand Hills updated the amendment application on numerous occasions, with the last update being filed in April 2020. The project would be located on private land in Starland County and Special Areas No. 2 near Delia, Alberta.

BER Hand Hills stated that the majority of the proposed wind turbines would be within 50 metres of the approved turbine locations. During the hearing, BER Hand Hills indicated that the interconnection was presently in Stage 2 of the AESO’s interconnection process and that it was anticipated that the AUC would receive the interconnection application in mid-2021. BER Hand Hills requested that the AUC approve a December 31, 2022, construction completion date for the Project with an anticipated construction commencement date of April 1, 2022.

Interveners

Members of the HHLG own land and reside in proximity to the Project. The HHLG submitted that the amendment is not in the public interest when assessed against the adverse impacts. The HHLG identified impacts of the Project, including residential and social impacts, noise sound and vibration impacts, human and animal health impacts, environmental impacts, project construction, operation and reclamation impacts and property value impacts.

AUC’s Consideration of the Application

The AUC noted that in applications such as this one, where the applicant seeks to amend its previously approved project, the AUC’s public interest consideration focuses on the incremental effects associated with the proposed amendments. An amendment application does not re-open consideration of the project as a whole. Accordingly, in this proceeding, the AUC noted that it must consider any incremental effects resulting from the change in turbine model and locations, and corresponding changes to the project layout, collector system and access roads, as well as changes to the substation.

Environmental Impacts

The AUC noted that the parties expressed differing views about which linear project infrastructure, including collector lines and access roads, should be considered by the AUC in determining whether the project, as amended, is in the public interest. BER Hand Hills submitted that only those pieces of amended project infrastructure, or changes to approved project infrastructure, which result in increased negative impacts should be considered by the AUC in making a determination on the amendment application.

The AUC maintained its view that an amendment application is not an opportunity to re-visit an existing approval. However, where an applicant pursues changes to a project that require an amendment application to be filed, the AUC must assess the amended project in its entirety, to determine how its impacts compare to those of the approved project. In any electric facility project, infrastructure siting choices are made to balance a variety of competing interests. The fact that approved infrastructure is relocated in a manner that reduces or minimizes its impacts to native grassland does not exempt the relocated infrastructure from a fulsome consideration of its impacts on other components of the environment. Accordingly, the AUC did not exclude any project infrastructure from its consideration of this application.

The AUC agreed with the HHLG expert that certain standards of the Wildlife Directive for Alberta Wind Energy Projects (“Directive”) are intended to be met. However, the AUC accepted that the Directive allows for deviations in limited circumstances, in consultation with Alberta Environment and Parks (“AEP”). In this case, AEP was aware of the setbacks for sharp-tailed grouse leks and specific wetlands being infringed upon and was presented with additional mitigation measures. The AUC put significant weight on AEP’s overall assessment of the amended project which was considered moderate. As such, the AUC was not persuaded that the amendment application should be denied outright on the basis of non-adherence to Directive standards, as long as the reasons for non-compliance are justified and the resulting impacts to the environment can be mitigated to an acceptable degree.

The AUC accepted that BER Hand Hills endeavoured to site infrastructure to minimize environmental impacts to the greatest extent possible. Nevertheless, the AUC noted that the amended project poses a high risk to sharp-tailed grouse given the amount of disturbance within three active lek setbacks. The AUC accepted the evidence of the HHLG expert that lek attendance is not necessarily limited to lekking season or specific hours. The AUC considered that, given the outstanding high risk to sharp-tailed grouse, it was reasonable to require mitigation beyond what BER Hand Hills proposed. Consequently, the AUC imposed an additional condition of approval to protect active leks.

Although the amendment reduced the number of turbines proposed on native grassland, the AUC noted that it expects BER Hand Hills to continue to look for opportunities to further minimize impacts during construction and operation.

Finally, the AUC noted that Rule 033: Post-approval Monitoring Requirements for Wind and Solar Power Plants (“Rule 033”) came into force on July 1, 2019, and applies to all wind projects approved after September 1, 2019. Accordingly, BER Hand Hills must comply with the requirements of Rule 033, and the AUC imposed this as a condition.

Noise Impacts

The AUC noted that in Decision 22736-D01-2020 for the Lanfine Wind Project, the AUC accepted a ground attenuation factor of 0.7 for a project area that had a relatively small percent of the project area classified as reflective surfaces (6.3 percent). The AUC accepted BER Hand Hills’ evidence indicating that, in the current proceeding, an even smaller percent of the project area is comprised of reflective surfaces (three percent). Accordingly, for this project, the AUC accepted the predicted results based on noise modelling using a ground attenuation factor of 0.7. The AUC stressed that regardless of modelling parameters used, including the choice of ground attenuation factor, the post-construction monitoring must show actual compliance with the permissible sound levels.

The AUC implemented a condition that requires post-construction comprehensive noise studies at three receptor locations. The AUC denied an intervener request for a Class A2 adjustment (where measured ambient sound level is different than assumed ambient sound levels), finding that the Project area did not meet the definition of “pristine” as defined in Appendix 1 of Rule 012, and that there was not sufficient measured data nor compelling reasons to warrant a deviation from the use of assumed values in the Project area. In particular, the AUC noted that the project area already hosts third-party energy facilities.

Visual Impacts

The AUC accepted the HHLG argument that the taller turbines would individually have a greater visual impact than the previously approved shorter turbines and that the HHLG may be negatively impacted by the change. However, the AUC did not find the incremental visual impact to be reason enough to deny the amendment. The AUC did note that the reduction in number of turbines would be expected to decrease visual impacts where turbine locations have been removed.

The AUC noted that it expects that BER Hand Hills will implement shadow flicker mitigation as necessary on a case-by-case basis. The AUC accepted that BER Hand Hills is aware of intervener concerns regarding the visual impacts of turbine lighting, and does not intend to install turbine lighting beyond what is required by Transport Canada to ensure aircraft safety.

Property Impacts

The AUC agreed that the potential for the turbine foundations to intercept the water table was negligible, and there was no evidence to substantiate the assertion that vibrations from the turbines might otherwise impact water quality in the project area. The AUC found that the project’s potential risk to groundwater and wells was low. The AUC was not persuaded there would be negative impacts to property values associated with the proposed amendment that warrant the application being conditioned or denied.

Health Impacts

While the AUC accepted that concerns about potential health impacts of the project were sincerely held, specialized expertise and evidence is required for the AUC to conclude that a project will have an adverse effect on human health. No such evidence was presented in this proceeding.

Other Impacts

To ensure that cultural and heritage impacts are effectively mitigated the AUC will require BER Hand Hills to provide confirmation that it has obtained a Historical Resources Act approval prior to construction. Dust control measures must be adopted to address certain dust related issues. A project-specific conservation and reclamation plan must be filed with AEP prior to commencing construction. The AUC granted a construction completion date of December 31, 2023.

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