February 21st, 2024

Massive city-limits solar proposal faces opposition

By COLLIN GALLANT on April 6, 2023.

cgallant@medicinehatnews.com@CollinGallant

A hearing date has been set to consider the Saamis Solar Park in northern Medicine Hat which, if approved by regulators, would become the largest urban solar power farm in Canada.

The Alberta Utilities Commission has set July 11 as the first day of a virtual hearing into the proposal to build a 325-megawatt capacity array on 662 hectares, more than 1,600 acres, north of Rotary Centennial Way (formerly 23rd Street).

Private utility developer DP Energy plans to place 310,000 solar panels on the site, along with a substation to connect to the Alberta power grid north of city limits.

The $400-million project would be the largest industrial investment in Medicine Hat in decades, but there is opposition.

Seven residents of the Crescent Heights, Northlands or Terrace communities have registered as individuals to participate and voice concerns about the effect of the field on their property values and noise, glare and visual impact.

A group called “Medicine Hat Concerned Citizens” is represented by Akroyd Law office, of Edmonton, and includes local environmental science instructor Brent Smith, a nearby resident of the site, and former head of the Grasslands Naturalists Gerry Ehlert.

Three private landowners east of the site also argue that, if the footprint is allowed to expand east from an original layout, the sprawling facility will severely hamper their ability to market or sell quarter sections for housing.

The company and intervenors will now exchange information and submissions this spring prior to the hearing.

Four years ago the News exclusively reported on the plans by the Irish company that has a Canadian subsidiary to build on land leased from Viterra.

It is part of its historic holdings acquired with the former Westco Fertilizer complex and tailings pond, which is the focal point of the proposal.

That large portion of the parcel contains a large phosphogypsum deposit, left over from fertilizer production, that is capped with clay.

Typical development is barred by provincial environmental reclamation rules, but in similar fashion to solar plants sited on decommissioned landfills, concrete pads would support panels rather than disturbing the ground with piles.

City planning rules also set out a 1.6-kilometre buffer zone from the CF Industries fertilizer plant where only heavy industry is permitted, though the layout of the field has been expanded eastward to pasture as the total planned capacity grew from 200 megawatts to 325 megawatts in a 2020 update.

An initial development permit from the city planning department was approved in late 2019. Renewable energy production is an allowed use on open land zoned for future urban development.

For comparison, the combined maximum output of the City of Medicine Hat’s gas-fired power complex is 299 megawatts, but Saamis is planned to put power on to the Alberta transmission system, specifically via the AltaLink Eastern Alberta Transmission line.

The City of Medicine Hat, which is not registered to take part in the hearing even as an observer, hasn’t stated an official position to the AUC. Over the years however, politicians and staff have said the development could be beneficial to increase the tax base without much added cost to service the parcel.

In 2022, city planning officials announced vastly reduced off-site levy rates, paid by private developers across the city, because the number of developable acres rose substantially, assumedly with the Viterra lands now in the calculations.

DP’s application states that, if approved, the project would take 12-18 months to build, and the end of 2024 would be the target in-service date.

Saamis is the largest of three similar projects in Alberta proposed by DP Energy.

The Barlow and Deerfoot Solar fields, located on former industrial sites in Calgary were purchased by Atco in late 2021 and are now being commissioned.

Deerfoot Solar’s capacity will be 37 megawatts, about one eighth the size of Saamis, while the largest solar farm in Canada, the Travers facility in Vulcan County, can produce 465 megawatts.

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