Solar Power – Facilities
Foothills Solar GP Inc. (“Foothills Solar”), a wholly owned subsidiary of Elemental Energy Renewable Inc., applied for permission to construct and operate the 150-megawatt (“MW”) Foothills Solar Power Plant ( the “Power Plant”) and associated Prairie Sun 1037S Substation (collectively, the “Project”) on approximately 1,500 acres of private land in Foothills County.
The AUC denied the application from Foothills Solar for permission to construct and operate the Project.
Alberta Utilities Commission Act, SA 2007, c A-37.2 – s 17.
Hydro and Electric Energy Act, RSA 2000, c H-16 – s 2(b).
Electric Utilities Act, SA 2003, c. E-5.1.
Municipal Government Act, RSA 2000, c M-26 – ss 619 and 620.
Alberta Environment and Parks Fish and Wildlife Stewardship – Wildlife Directive for Alberta Solar Energy Projects
AUC Rule 001: Rules of Practice
Statements of intent to participate, opposing the Project, were filed by the Frank Lake Concerned Citizen Group (“FLCC”), Foothills County, Greg Wagner, a volunteer caretaker of Frank Lake Important Bird Biodiversity Area (“Frank Lake IBA”), Calgary Field Naturalists’ Society (“Nature Calgary”), and Canadian Wildlife Service, Environment and Climate Change Canada.
Benefits for Cold Lake First Nations
Cold Lake First Nations had partnered with Elemental Energy for the Project and supported its approval. The Project would provide substantial environmental and economic benefits for Albertans and an opportunity for Cold Lake First Nations to participate in the renewable energy sector through an ownership stake in the Project that would result in long-term economic and capacity-building benefits. The AUC noted that Cold Lake First Nations did not participate in the hearing, and no party raised the honour of the Crown or reconciliation as a relevant issue. The AUC found that approval of the Project could result in positive socioeconomic benefits for Cold Lake First Nations.
Environment and Wildlife
The FLCC raised concerns that the Project would be sited in an internationally recognized environmentally important area that is home to wildlife, including sensitive and threatened species. It questioned whether there is adequate protection for wildlife species and the environment. In assessing the renewable energy referral report for the Project, Alberta Environment and Parks Fish and Wildlife Stewardship (“AEP”) found that the Project poses an overall moderate risk to the environment. AEP did however determine that the Project posed high risk to birds as a result of Project infrastructure located within Frank Lake IBA.
One of the issues before the AUC was whether the siting of the Frank Lake IBA was compliant with the Wildlife Directive for Alberta Solar Energy Projects (the ”Directive”) and how much weight should be attributed to Best Management Practices noted in the Directive. Approximately 50 percent of the Project would be directly sited within the Frank Lake IBA, and approximately 80 percent would be cited within the 1,000-meter setback from the IBA boundary recommended by Best Management Practice (“BMP”) 200.1.1 of the Directive. While parties did not agree on the determination of the distance from the Frank Lake IBA, AEP and the AUC considered initial site selection to be the foremost means of reducing the potential for environmental impacts of a project as indicated by the Directive. The AUC determined that BMPs are recommendations and that deviations from a BMP or standard proposed by an applicant need to be appropriately justified, mitigated, and minimized as much as reasonably practicable.
A key issue was the potential for direct bird mortalities from collisions with photovoltaic solar panels. The parties in the proceeding indicated that the unexpected discovery of stranded and dead birds near some solar facilities had been historically observed, and research has found a potential for higher mortalities of aquatic habitat birds.
A further concern was raised regarding a potential for high transmission line mortalities in birds and a resulting overall bird population reduction. The AUC acknowledged the concerns. It noted that the underlying analyses might be limited in accuracy as a result of limitations in data and standardized methodologies.
Given the proximity of the Project to the Frank Lake IBA, the significance of Frank Lake to migratory birds and breeding water birds, the abundance and high diversity of birds and waterbirds at risk in the area, the remaining concern about the Lake Effect Hypothesis, and existing direct and indirect negative impacts, the AUC found that there is a reasonable risk for the Project to cause significant adverse environmental impacts.
The potential benefits of the Project included reduced greenhouse gas emissions and other local economic benefits, positive socioeconomic benefits for Cold Lake First Nations and a commensurate potential to facilitate reconciliation between the Crown and Cold Lake First Nations as Indigenous peoples. The AUC, however, also determined that the impacts of the Project on the Frank Lake IBA and the social and environmental values that it represents are unacceptable. The Project has the potential to create a high mortality risk to birds and the bird habitat provided in the Frank Lake IBA. The AUC found that the Project would pose an unacceptably high risk to the environment and is not in the public interest.
The AUC was not convinced that the potential benefits outweighed the risk of high bird mortalities and the impacts on the Frank Lake IBA. The AUC determined that the social and environmental values represented by the Project would be unacceptable.