Updated September 8, 2023.
Some rural communities in Alberta are pushing back against the provincial government’s seven-month pause on approvals of new renewable energy projects, as hundreds of letters from individuals, companies, municipalities, Indigenous communities and industry groups show a growing backlash to the measure.
When Affordability and Utilities Minister Nathan Neudorf announced the moratorium in early August, the province said it was responding to concerns from rural municipalities about landowners’ rights and eventual decommissioning of solar and wind farm sites. At the time, Vittoria Bellissimo, president and CEO of the Canadian Renewable Energy Association, told The Energy Mix the issues that supposedly triggered the ban were all under discussion and on their way to being resolved.
Late last month, the Rural Municipalities of Alberta “said it never asked for a pause on approvals of renewable energy projects in the province, despite Premier Danielle Smith’s assertion that the organization passed a motion requesting the moratorium,” the Globe and Mail reports. And now, individual communities are speaking up.
“They pulled the rug out from under us,” said John Rimmer, mayor of Caroline, where the United Conservative government’s move has stranded a solar project that would have contributed at least 15% of the community’s municipal budget, The Canadian Press writes.
Rimmer and the rest of village council sent a letter to Smith saying the moratorium should be lifted.
“Corporations will not look kindly on these sorts of government decisions,” the letter says. “Instead of a much-needed increase in our tax revenue, Caroline again will have to continue to move closer to dissolution.”
Rimmer said his concerns are being ignored.
“I’ve sent lots of emails. I’ve been ghosted.”
By Friday, the backlash had grown to hundreds of letters totalling 609 pages, the large majority of them expressing “overwhelming frustration” with the new provincial policy, the Globe and Mail reports. They warned that the moratorium was putting thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in investments at risk.
On Wednesday, the Alberta Utilities Commission, which had been given a March, 2024 deadline to look into the issues behind the ban, upped the ante by announcing “a swath of additional information requirements for new renewable energy project applications,” the Globe says. “This sporadic trickle of information isn’t good for market certainty,” said Jason Dye, acting director of the Business Renewables Centre-Canada.
Innisfail, another town in central Alberta, sent Smith a letter similar to Caroline’s, CP writes.
“This moratorium is harmful to municipalities like ours, preventing us from generating needed revenue to keep property tax increases at a minimum, while continuing to provide the services and facilities required to retain and attract new residents and businesses,” said the letter, signed by Mayor Jean Barclay.
The moratorium could also unplug the 13-hectare Peace River Energy Project, western Canada’s first cooperatively-financed solar farm, which was days away from receiving Alberta Utilities Commission approval to begin construction when Smith announced the moratorium. The non-profit project, located about 1.5 kilometres west of Peace River, would power the equivalent of 1,200 homes, reduce local power rates, and deliver residual income to the co-op’s 650 members, The Tyee reports.
“It was gut-wrenching,” said co-op president Joanne Dueck. “It feels like fossil fuels get government favour. It feels like we don’t get nearly some of the same lobby power that those groups have. And we have to fight uphill to keep our quarter.”
Neudorf spokesperson Josh Aldrich told CP a “small number” of letters have been received, although he didn’t identify the senders.
“We are committed to working with municipal leaders, along with landowners and industry to ensure that any future regulatory changes meet the needs of Albertans,” Aldrich said.
The Calgary-based Pembina Institute calculated that the pause would affect 118 solar, wind, and geothermal projects worth C$33 billion, enough to keep 24,000 people working for a year and produce $263 million in local taxes and leases for landowners in 27 municipalities, the majority of them with populations under 100,000.
Innisfail was hoping to develop a project itself, Barclay told CP. She said it would have brought in about $500,000 a year, the equivalent of a 6% property tax increase.
The government has said the pause responded to concerns expressed by counties and municipal districts about the loss of agricultural land and the lack of rules around remediation. Barclay said Innisfail’s project was on former industrial land that wouldn’t have been useful for anything else.
“I understand the concern about prime agricultural land, but we use prime agricultural land for concrete and pavement, too.”
She said even though Alberta’s utilities regulator has promised to process applications while stopping short of issuing approvals, there are no guarantees projects will proceed.
“That depends on what the outcome is,” she said. “We don’t really know.”
Rimmer said counties and districts don’t necessarily have the same interests as municipalities. The larger communities have access to tax sources that his council doesn’t, he said.
“We also need tax revenues in order to sustain ourselves,” he said. “(The province) keeps downloading more stuff on us.” And many rural municipalities in Alberta are finding out they can’t rely on local oil and gas operators to pay their taxes.
Rimmer said Caroline has worked for years to attract a renewable power developer. He called the government’s reason for the pause “an excuse.”
“It’s like when the cars came out—everybody was against it because it would scare the horses.”
Rimmer said the United Conservatives’ move is having the same effect on renewable power as the federal Liberals are having on fossil fuels.
Alberta “is doing the same thing as those goobers down in Ottawa,” he told CP. “This project could be toast.”
And yet, “when projects are built and running, there is a steady, consistent stream of revenue coming into those communities,” said Kyle Kasawski, New Democrat critic for municipal affairs, mid-sized municipalities and rural Alberta.
Neudorf’s spokesperson, Josh Aldrich, said there are only 13 projects awaiting approval from the regulator. He pointed to a recent grid alert issued by the Alberta electricity operator as proof the province’s electrical system is unbalanced.
On Monday, August 28, the Alberta Electric System Operator said low winds and problems with power transmission from British Columbia strained the system.
Alberta’s moratorium on renewables approvals is scheduled to end on February 29, 2024.
The main body of this report was first published by The Canadian Press on August 29, 2023.