Solar – Facility
Creekside Solar Inc. (“CSI”) applied for approval to construct and operate the 18.4-megawatt (“MW”) Creekside Solar Power Plant and to connect the power plant to the FortisAlberta Inc. electric distribution network (the “Project”). The Project would be sited on approximately 127 acres of privately owned cultivated land in Leduc County.
The AUC granted standing in the proceeding to the Creekside Concerned Landowners Group (“CCLG”), which consisted of individual stakeholders adjacent to the Project boundary, and the Leduc County (the “County”).
The AUC approved the application from CSI, with conditions.
Applying the criteria set out in s 17 of the Alberta Utilities Commission Act the AUC must consider the public benefits of the proposed Project. In this respect, consideration was given to the impact the Project may have on surrounding landowners, as premised on the CCLG’s concerns. In assessing these concerns, specific consideration was given to the position of the McKells (the property owners of the adjacent property). Overall, the AUC found that the negative impacts associated with the Project are outweighed by the benefits of the Project. In reaching this conclusion, the most pertinent findings made by the AUC were in relation to the following issues.
Overall, the AUC was satisfied that CSI’s participant involvement program met the minimum requirements as set out in Rule 007: Applications for Power Plants, Substations, Transmission Lines, Industrial System Designations, Hydro Developments and Gas Utility Pipelines. Nonetheless, the AUC identified some concerns with CSI’s consultation activities and expressed an expectation that CSI would make improvements in the future, such as posting a larger newspaper advertisement that included: key information about CSI as a company; a description of the project; and a map of the project area. Additionally, it would have been more meaningful to communicate with potentially affected stakeholders through attendance at an open house.
The AUC also noted the high level of tension between certain CCLG members and CSI and expressed an expectation that CSI will consult and work with local stakeholders proactively and in good faith as it constructs and operates the Project since its consultation responsibilities to stakeholders do not end when the application is approved.
Project Impacts on Adjacent Landowners
The McKells were the landowners most impacted by the Project due to the proximity of their land, which is located on the same quarter section, immediately east of the Project. Specific concerns involved noise, dust and visual impacts. The AUC found that the proposed construction and dust mitigation measures were a good start but insufficient and required CSI to implement the following additional mitigation measures:
- Prohibit idling of heavy truck engines during construction;
- Limit installing piling to daytime hours;
- Advise nearby residents of significant noise-causing activities and provide a schedule of construction activities causing significant noise;
- Use best efforts to rent equipment with white noise backup beepers; and
- Ensure that internal combustion engines are well maintained and have muffler systems.
The AUC also required CSI, in consultation with the McKells, to develop a construction impact mitigation plan with creative solutions to address noise and dust impacts, including submitting the plan with the AUC as part of the final project update.
With regard to visual impacts, the AUC directed CSI to file a visual screening plan and maintain all vegetation screening associated with the Project, including watering, maintenance and upkeep, and the removal and replacement of dead vegetation adjacent to the McKell property.
The AUC assessed the expert evidence regarding low frequency noise (“LFN”), ambient sound levels (“ASLs”), noise mitigation and post-construction sound monitoring.
In relation to LFN, the AUC found that the LFN test in CSI’s noise impact assessment (“NIA”) met the requirements of Rule 012: Noise Control (“Rule 012”), accepting the conclusion that the Project is unlikely to have LFN impacts.
The AUC accepted CSI’s evidence that the consideration of rail lines and industrial area close to the Project would likely result in an upward adjustment to the permissible sound levels (“PSLs”), which would demonstrate the conservative nature of the NIA. Based on this, the AUC found that an ASL survey is unnecessary in the circumstances.
Although the project was predicted to comply with Rule 012 at all receptors, the NIA considered an optional mitigation measure, such as installation of sound baffles to reduce fan noise associated with the Project power stations. As a result, the AUC expressed an expectation that CSI will not only ensure the Project was compliant with Rule 012 but also apply best feasible practices to mitigate noise and directed CSI to submit in the final project design a report detailing the measures it has implemented to mitigate noise from operations.
The AUC imposed a condition of approval in relation to post-construction sound monitoring directing CSI to conduct a post-construction comprehensive sound level (“CSL”) survey, including an evaluation of low frequency noise, at Receptor R09 (the McKell residence) to verify compliance with Rule 012.
Visual Impacts and Glare
The AUC noted that, in general, the extent of the solar panels’ visual impacts depends on the size of the project, the distance between the solar panels and homes, and the topography of the land. The AUC also noted that most residences surrounding the Project have existing tree screening that exceeds the height of the Project’s solar panels, which mitigates to some extent the visual impacts to nearby residences.
The AUC found that the glare assessment conducted by CSI’s expert meets the requirements of Rule 007, and that residential and route receptors are predicted to have little to no glare from the Project. The AUC imposed a condition of approval requiring CSI to file a report detailing any complaints or concerns regarding solar glare from the Project during its first year of operation. The AUC also directed CSI to use anti-reflective coating on the solar panels since the solar glare modelling was premised on the use of anti-reflective coating.
CCLG expressed concerns that the Project takes out of production the most productive agricultural land in the province and that food production is more important than power generation. The AUC acknowledged that agricultural land will be removed as a consequence of the Project. However, the Project is sited on private land, which CSI intended to purchase should the Project be approved. The Project will not impact the agricultural use of lands belonging to CCLG members and, in the absence of legal or government policy restrictions that affect a private landowner’s ability to take agricultural land out of production, the AUC attributed significant weight to a private landowner’s discretion over land use.
Property Value Impacts
The AUC found that, with the exception of the impacts to the McKells, the property value impacts to CCLG members are minimal considering: the distance between the Project and CCLG members’ residences; the height of the Project and its fence; the significant tree screening at the majority of properties nearest to the Project; and the low impact on property value proffered by CCLG’s own expert. The AUC also found that there could be a property valuation impact for the McKell property but that the conditions in this decision related to screening should help mitigate that impact.
The AUC held that CSI appropriately considered the standards and best management practices outlined in the Wildlife Directive for Alberta Solar Energy Projects (the “Directive”) when initially selecting a site for the project. The AUC imposed a condition of approval directing CSI to submit an annual post-construction monitoring survey report to Alberta Environment and Protected Areas (“AEPA”) and the AUC in accordance with Rule 033: Post-approval Monitoring Requirements for Wind and Solar Power Plants.
The AUC found the mitigation measures included in CSI’s environmental protection plan sufficiently robust to address the introduction and spread of clubroot and weeds. The AUC was also satisfied that the mitigation and strategies outlined by CSI in the environmental protection and, the conservation and reclamation plans were sufficient to protect soil quantity and quality.
In relation to the Project’s proximity to Conjuring Creek, the AUC imposed a condition of approval requiring CSI to delineate a 20-metre setback from the fenceline to the top of the break for Conjuring Creek, which must be properly delineated by a qualified professional.
CSI submitted a Phase 1 and Phase 2 environmental site assessment which identified Alberta Tier 1 Soil and Groundwater Remediation Guidelines exceedances at the former wellsite for select salinity, petroleum hydrocarbon, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon and metal parameters, as well as elevated chloride values, within the Project area.
In response to the prior Project site contamination, CSI committed to remediating the contaminated soils identified within the Project boundary prior to construction in areas where contamination is identified. In addition, CSI committed to the assessment of remediated lands by a qualified third-party expert and to also apply for a remediation certificate after remediation is completed. The AUC imposed a condition of approval requiring CSI to submit a report demonstrating that contamination associated with the former wellsite has been remediated to Alberta Tier 1 Soil and Groundwater Remediation Guidelines standards.
With respect to end-of-life management, CSI submitted a conservation and reclamation plan in accordance with the AEPA Conservation and Reclamation Directive for Renewable Energy Operations. The AUC was satisfied that the CSI made sufficient plans, for the purposes of Rule 007, for decommissioning and reclaiming the Project land.
The County expressed concerns with the AUC’s approvals taking precedence over the County’s development permits pursuant to s 619 of the Municipal Government Act (“MGA”) and requested that the AUC expressly impose conditions to address the County’s concerns with regard to the development permits CSI must obtain. The AUC held that ss 619 and 620 of the MGA confirm that the AUC’s provincial authority prevails over that of the municipalities and that conditions of a provincial approval will take precedence over any conflicting condition resulting from a municipal development process. The AUC, however, also clarified that ss 619 and 620 of the MGA do not displace a municipality’s planning and development decision-making authority and are only used if it is necessary to resolve conflicts between the AUC’s and the municipality’s decisions. According to the AUC, if there is no conflict between these levels of authority, both authorities’ decisions may apply in the circumstances.
The AUC concluded that approval of the Project application was in the public interest having regard to the social, economic, and other effects of the projects, including the effects on the environment.