Solar Power – Facilities
Solar Krafte Utilities Inc. (“Solar Krafte”) applied for approval to amend, construct and operate the 360-megawwatt (“MW”) Brooks Solar Farm power plant (the “Project”). Solar Krafte also applied for approval to transfer the Project and the Zachary 997S Substation (the “Substation”) permit and licence to Beargrass Solar Inc. (“Beargrass”). Solar Krafte requested an extension of the deadline to construct the Project and the Substation.
The AUC approved in part the application to amend, construct and operate the Project. It further imposed conditions of approval, determining that it is not in the public interest to approve the construction and operation of the Project within the project layout on the north half of Section 18, Township 18, Range 15, west of the Fourth Meridian (“North Half of Section 18”).
The AUC approved the application to transfer the licenses and the application for an extension of the deadline to construct the Project and Substation.
The AUC initially approved the Project and Substation in Decision 26435-D01-2022. In that decision, the AUC found that it was not in the public interest to approve the construction and operation of the Project in Section 24, Township 18, Range 16, west of the Fourth Meridian (“Section 24”). It determined that the Project posed unacceptable negative environmental impact to the large area of native grassland in that section. Therefore, the AUC excluded from the approval the construction and operation of the Project in Section 24. The AUC also found that the North Half of Section 18 did not qualify as native grassland and approved the construction and operation of the Project on that section.
On December 22, 2022, Solar Krafte applied for approval to amend, construct and operate the Brooks Solar Farm. Among other changes, the 2022 amendment application revised the layout of the original Project area to include approximately 165 acres of additional land immediately west of and abutting the original Project area.
On March 10, 2023, Beargrass Solar and Solar Krafte applied for approval to transfer the Project approval and the Substation permit and licence from Solar Krafte to Beargrass, should the AUC approve the amendment application. Two weeks before the scheduled oral hearing to determine the amendment application, Solar Krafte updated the design of the 2022 amendment (the “2023 Amendment”). In the 2023 Amendment, Solar Krafte no longer included 165 acres of additional Project land proposed in the 2022 amendment and changed the Project layout. The AUC determined that the 2023 Amendment did not fall within the allowances for a final project update defined in Rule 007: Applications for Power Plants, Substation, Transmission Lines, Industrial System Designations, Hydro Developments and Gas Utility Pipelines (“Rule 007”) and established a written hearing process to consider the 2023 Amendment.
In addition to the AUC’s consideration of the 2023 Amendment, on July 5, 2023, the AUC initiated a narrowly scoped review of its original Decision 26435-D01-2022 on the question of whether the North Half of Section 18 within the Project footprint qualifies as native grassland, and if so, whether it is in the public interest to approve the construction and operation of the Brooks Solar Farm on these lands. The AUC suspended Approval 26435-D03-2022 in the North Half of Section 18 only, pending the determination of the AUC-initiated review.
Consideration of the Applications
The applicant has the onus to demonstrate that approval of its application is in the public interest. Parties who may be directly and adversely affected by the approval of the application may attempt to show how the applicant has not met its onus. These parties may do so by bringing evidence of the effects of the Project on their own private interests and explaining how the public interest may be better served by accommodating their private interests. They may use the evidence filed by all parties to the proceeding to argue what a better balancing of the public interest might be. It is the AUC’s role to test the application and the concerns raised about the Project to determine whether approval is in the public interest.
The evaluation of the public interest requires the AUC to assess and balance the competing elements of the public interest in the context of each specific application. The assessment includes the positive and adverse impacts of the Project on those nearby, such as landowners. The AUC has previously affirmed that the public interest will be largely met if an application complies with existing regulatory standards and the project’s public benefits outweigh its negative impacts. A power plant application before the AUC must comply with Rule 007 and Rule 012: Noise Control (“Rule 012”) and a transfer application must comply with Rule 007 and s 23 of the HEEA.
In an application where the applicant seeks to amend its previously approved project, the AUC’s public interest consideration focuses on the incremental effects associated the proposed amendment.
Rule 016: Review of Commission Decisions (“Rule 016”) authorizes the AUC to review any of its decisions on its own motion at any time and for any reason. In this proceeding, the AUC determined that exceptional circumstances existed and that there were compelling reasons to review Decision 26435-D01-2022 on the narrow question of whether the North Half of Section 18 qualified as native grassland, and if so, whether it was in the public interest to approve the construction and operation of the Project in the North Half of Section 18.
Amendment to Brooks Solar Farm
The AUC reviewed the 2023 Amendment in Application 27916-A001 and determined that the information requirements specified in Rule 007 were met. The AUC found that construction and operation of the Project in the North Half of Section 18 was not in the public interest. However, it also considered the remainder of the Project, as amended, to be in the public interest in accordance with s 17 of the Alberta Utilities Commission Act (“AUC Act”), subject to the conditions imposed in this decision, and the conditions that remain in effect from the previous approval. The AUC’s approval of the 2023 Amendment was premised on its understanding that commitments made by Solar Kraft were binding.
The AUC found that the North Half of Section 18 presents functional native grassland, that the potential impacts to that native grassland create a high risk to wildlife and wildlife habitat, and that there are inadequate mitigation measures proposed to reduce these environmental impacts to an acceptable level. After weighing the negative environmental impacts with the social, economic and other effects related to the portion of the Project proposed to be sited on this section, the AUC determined that it was not in the public interest to approve construction and operation of the Project in the North Half of Section 18.
Overall, and subject to the imposed conditions, the AUC found that Solar Kraft satisfied the requirements of Rule 007 and Rule 012. Further, for the portions of the Project that are not located on the North Half of Section 18, the negative impacts of the Project could be mitigated to an acceptable degree and the benefits outweighed the negative impacts.
Approval of Transfer Application
The AUC granted the approvals for the transfer application. The AUC’s approval of the transfer application was also premised on its understanding that commitments made by Solar Krafte were binding on Beargrass.
Pursuant to s 8(5)(d) of the AUC Act, the AUC granted an extension of the construction deadline in Permit and Licence 26435-D02-2022 until October 31, 2024, which was the same construction deadline imposed in Power Plant Approval 27916-D02-2023.