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Alberta government announces new rules for renewables projects as moratorium ends

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As a seven-month pause on wind and solar development in Alberta comes to an end, the provincial government has laid out new rules to guide future wind and solar development in the province.

Alberta Premier Danielle Smith and Affordability and Utilities Minister Nathan Neudorf announced the changes on Wednesday, which include a ban on new wind projects located within 35-kilometre "buffer zones" around protected areas and other “pristine viewscapes” designated by the province.

Other proposed developments located within the buffer zone may be subject to a visual impact assessment before approval.

The province also said the Alberta Utilities Commission will follow an “agriculture first” approach when evaluating proposed renewables development on agricultural lands. It said Alberta will no longer permit renewable generation developments on certain lands unless crops or livestock can coexist with the proposed renewable generation project.

Developers will be responsible for reclamation costs, provided directly to the Alberta government or negotiated with landowners if sufficient evidence is provided to the AUC.

The province said it will require "meaningful engagement" before any policy changes for projects on Crown land, which would not come into effect until late 2025. Any development of renewable development on Crown lands will be on a case-by-case basis.

Jorden Dye, director of the Business Renewables Centre-Canada — which works to help businesses and institutions reduce their emissions by connecting buyers and sellers of renewable power — said the industry is missing key details needed by companies to navigate the new rules pertaining to reclamation, land use and viewscapes.

Dye said the government has essentially introduced a second “soft moratorium," adding the 35-kilometre buffer zone around all protected areas in southern Alberta "would eliminate large sections of the province and would create a backdoor land ban."

"By introducing three new regulatory frameworks without details, investors and developers are left wondering what this actually means for their projects," he said in a statement.

"Investors required certainty, and the government offered confusion."

Some involved in the sector say increased politicization threatens its future growth.

The industry was caught off guard last August by the UCP government's move to impose a temporary moratorium, set to expire Thursday, on new wind and solar approvals in the province to give it time to study issues related to land use, reclamation and grid reliability.

Dan Balaban, CEO of Greengate Power Corp., said the government-imposed pause on the renewables sector was just one piece of an increasingly contentious public debate that has left the wind and solar industry feeling like a political football.

"This is really about the politics of energy," said Balaban, whose company was behind the development of the Travers Solar farm in southern Alberta, one of the largest solar projects in the world. 

"It's very disappointing because I think there are pragmatic solutions to get us to where we ultimately need to be in terms of providing clean, reliable and affordable energy, and the politics of division aren't going to get us there. For me, as an entrepreneur, it's very off-putting."

The government-imposed moratorium was a response to what has been an explosion of growth in the province's renewable energy in recent years. In 2022, 75 per cent of all new wind and solar projects in Canada were built in Alberta, thanks to the province's sunny skies, abundance of wind and unique deregulated electricity market.

But the rapid growth led to questions from rural communities about who would be on the hook to clean up renewable energy infrastructure as well as concerns around the use of food-producing agricultural land for renewable energy development. 

Balaban said all of those questions are valid, but Alberta's move to shut down the industry while seeking answers was "a very negative signal."

"It really feels like the renewable energy industry was singled out," he said. 

"I agree that all of these things need to be reviewed, but I certainly don't see the same level of scrutiny and negativity being directed toward other industries."

At the time the moratorium was announced, there were 118 renewable energy projects proposed by 64 different development companies either in the permitting stage or about to apply for permitting in Alberta.

Like Balaban, Dye said he is concerned in general about the public discourse around renewables, which has intensified due to opposition from Alberta and neighbouring Saskatchewan about the federal government's proposed clean electricity regulations.

"I do think it's sad this has become politicized," Dye said in a previous interview. "Not only does it keep us from focusing on the actual issues, it just reduces the level of conversation in the province."

Dye pointed to what happened when Alberta was forced to declare an emergency grid alert during an extreme cold snap in January. 

Smith called renewables "unreliable" even though two natural gas-fired power plants were also offline at the time, while Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe said on social media that power exports from his province to Alberta would be coming from "natural gas and coal-fired plants, the ones the Trudeau government is telling us to shut down (which we won't)."

Vittoria Bellissimo, president and CEO of the Canadian Renewable Energy Association, said she was discouraged by the number of "hot takes" the grid advisory sparked and said she has been working hard to increase the UCP government's understanding of renewable energy generally.

"It's not one type of energy versus another type of energy here. We have oil and gas producers who buy renewables to satisfy their electricity needs and ESG obligations. We have natural gas-fired generators who also produce renewables," she said.

"There is no line in the sand, or us versus them."

Balaban said he thinks his industry has been damaged by the "hostile rhetoric" between the province and the federal government over net-zero goals, which is taking momentum away from the growth of the renewables sector in Alberta. 

He said his own company is not pursuing any new developments in Alberta until it is confident that any forthcoming new rules for the sector will be "clear, fair and objective."

"You know, increasingly in the world we're seeing ourselves being defined by division on major issues," he said. 

"Energy is just one of those major issues and arguably one of the most important ones in Alberta. And this is unfortunately how it's playing out."

— With files from Sammy Hudes in Toronto

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 28, 2024.

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