By Collin Gallant on February 9, 2019.
A 1,000-acre solar energy farm could be built on barren land just north of Crescent Heights, according to the plans of an Irish renewable energy firm moving ahead with a similar project in Calgary.
This week DP Energy submitted a formal proposal to Calgary planning commission to place solar arrays on former industrial land owned by Viterra.
That facility would be capable of producing 25 megawatts of power, making it the largest in Western Canada.
The firm’s “Saamis Solar Project” would be eight times larger, with a 200-megawatt capacity, if it is built, as proposed, on top of the former tailing pond of Western Co-operative Fertilizers, north of 23rd Street.
The company did not respond to interview requests from the News, while city officials say they are aware of preliminary aspects, there’s no formal position yet on how it could affect the city’s utility business.
The local land in question is also owned by Viterra, which has been seeking to sell off quarter-sections of its historical holdings in northern Medicine Hat.
The former dry pit however, is subject to an environmental restrictions that limit development due to reclamation efforts.
“Medicine Hat boasts more days of sunshine per year — 330 — than any other city in Canada,” reads a project description on the DP Energy website. “(At) the 1000-acre brownfield site … solar power generation offers a productive use of an area that would otherwise have limited development potential. The large, clear and relatively level surface of the cap is ideal for solar panel installation.”
Officials with the company did not respond to interview requests about the plans.
Such a facility could be years away from fruition, but the company is moving its smaller proposal ahead in Calgary, where it is proposing two fields, one near Barlow Trail and another near Deerfoot Trail.
Last June, “Barlow Solar Park,” “Deerfoot Solar Park” and “Saamis Solar Park,” were all registered as separate Alberta corporations using the same Edmonton law firm as a corporate address.
On Thursday, Calgary planners recommended that city’s council approve a required land-use designation in March, paving the way for the Barlow project.
DP Energy is a privately controlled renewable energy company based in Cork, Ireland. It has operations in that country, Northern Ireland, Scotland, Australia and Canada, where it is a partner in the Bay of Fundy tidal power project.
City Hall investigates
Officials with the City of Medicine Hat’s utility department confirmed that the company approached the city’s business attraction office in 2017 to discuss the project, but citing confidentiality did not expand on those discussions.
Rochelle Pancoast, manager of the separate utility business support office, said companies looking to invest in Medicine Hat deal with the Development Investment Readiness Team, (known as the DIRT program), during early stages.
Work typically doesn’t proceed to other departments until projects are ready to formally progress, she said. Likewise, elected officials would not yet have been informed of the proposal.
“Any large project would be in that stage because they are pre-feasability (study),” said Pancoast.
Beyond potential support for new business activity however, a large power producer setting up inside Medicine Hat, with a municipal power company and exclusive trading area, presents several questions about how power would be handled, marketed or used in potential partnership.
“That would have to be discussed (in the future),” said Pancoast. “What’s their intention? What’s the interest for the city, either supportive or with concerns, with the power connection? But first and foremost … because we have a (power generation charter), it’s our priority to make sure Medicine Hat is providing safe reliable systems to our customers.
“Whatever arrangements are possible, we would make sure that’s protected.”
The Saamis Solar project has not been formally submitted to the Alberta Utility Commission for regulatory approval, and that body would likely rule that such a large project would be required to feed power directly on to the Alberta grid.
Even without a potential utility agreement, the benefit to the local economy would be substantial.
The Calgary project, which would comprise panels on 156 acres, has an estimated construction budget of $45 million. A budget to build in Medicine Hat could be five or six times larger, and fallow fields would be subject to taxes.
“It’s an interesting proposition but I’m not sure the city (utility) division) would be affected,” said Coun. Phil Turnbull, chair of the utility committee. “It would be taking land that can’t be used and building something. It would obviously help the tax base and there would be great potential for jobs during construction and after.”
Solar energy farms can take years to advance from initial proposal, to approval from provincial regulators, to completion as development firms typically seek to local up supply contracts at advantageous pricing before financing and building projects.
A spat of projects in southern Alberta is in final stages of AUC approval, though industry observers say the declining cost of solar panels is making the economic case for moving ahead with projects easier.
Both the Calgary and Medicine Hat sites involve tailings ponds left over from fertilizer production where environmental regulations bar development for a period of years.
The site accepted fertilizer production waste dating back to the 1950s when Northwest NitroChemical owned it, until the mid 1980s when the Westco facility was closed. The pond, technically called a phosphogypsum stack, was capped with earth in the mid-2000s.
DP Energy agents state in a Calgary land-use application that they believe their concrete bases of panel arrays wouldn’t disturb the underlying material.
Several years ago Viterra began marketing about 2,500 acres — acquired in 2012 from Agrium (formerly the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool) when its share of CF Industries changed hands in a complicated merger and asset swap.
Most of the marketable land is designated as “Future Urban Development” in city zoning, meaning housing and commercial development is possible. Portions closest to existing plants to the northwest is assigned for heavy industry. That land, as well as the tailing pond, falls within a 1.6-kilometre (one-mile) radius buffer zone from existing plants where commercial or residential development is not allowed in consideration of public safety.
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