April 24th, 2024

First major solar play OK’d since pause

By COLLIN GALLANT on March 21, 2024.

The location of the Aura Peace Butte Solar Project southeast of Seven Persons is shown on this map provided to by the developer to the Alberta Utilities Commission.--Supplied Image

cgallant@medicinehatnews.com@CollinGallant

One week after new rules for proposed wind and solar facilities were outlined by the provincial government and regulators, a major proposal just south of Medicine Hat has been approved.

The Aura Peace Butte Solar Farm would encompass 820 acres of privately owned land near the Black and White Trail, about 13 kilometres southeast of Seven Persons.

It was before the Alberta Utilities Commission for approval last August when a seven-month moratorium was instituted while the AUC developed new rules for reclamation security, visual impact, soil productivity and participation in hearings.

The project was approved this week with the decision stating the new rules either do not apply or were satisfied in the original application.

“It’s mostly in line with what we expected,” said Victor Beda, lead developer of Aura Power Canada, a subsidiary of a firm based in the United Kingdom.

“The project is one we sited very carefully. It’s right under a power line, a spot that’s considered maybe more of a quiet area. In terms of visual impact, it’s well away from parks areas or public spaces … Those are pluses, and things we considered, so it’s not entirely surprising when the decision came down.”

Also approved were a related substation that will join the Alberta power system to the solar array, with a capacity to produce 230 megawatts of power in peak conditions, and a battery solar system capable of releasing 270 megawatt hours of power.

The application – filed before the moratorium – predicted approval could lead to construction in late 2024 and commercial operations in 2025. That would be evaluated and potentially prolonged, said Beda, adding final development services, equipment procurement and other factors in Alberta have slowed since August.

“Everybody in the industry went into a holding pattern,” said Beda. “We desperately want to proceed, but we need to get some momentum back in areas that are beyond our control.”

On Feb.28, Affordability and Utilities Minister Nathan Neudorf announced that an “agriculture first” policy would be put in place, requiring applicants to prove agricultural productivity could be maintained on applications located on Class 1 and 2 soil types.

Last week, more information on requirements for visual impact assessments outlined impact zones for wind turbines near some provincial parks and the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains. A process to ensure reclamation – previously dealt with in lease agreements with land owners, according to the power industry – is still to be determined.

That was not a factor in the Aura Peace Butte decision, however.

“The Commission accepts that the applicant’s approach to reclamation is sufficient for the purposes of satisfying the Commission that approval of the project is in the public interest,” reads the AUC decision.

It also states that the site, which is not irrigated and is cultivated to grow wheat by a renter, contains “Class 3 or lower” soil grades.

Cypress County council had objected and applied to become an intervenor in the AUC process in the early summer – before the provincial government moratorium – arguing that it was in their area of responsibility to protect agricultural land from fragmentation.

Aura appeared before council in the fall to discuss potential objections, and county’s application to participate in a hearing was withdrawn on Oct. 18.

Two nearby landowners also withdrew their statement to participate over concerns that the site’s slope supports a small onsite irrigation pond on a nearby parcel. They cited discussions with the developer about mitigating any adverse effects in a letter to the AUC on Nov. 4.

Aura Peace Butte Solar is similarly named but not affiliated with the Peace Butte Wind Farm, proposed by Pteragen.

Aura developed the Empress Solar Park that is now operating in northern Cypress County and owned by Atco. It has several development projects in east-central Alberta.

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