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Use of agricultural land for solar farms a growing concern for rural residents

Number of solar farm projects proposed increasing in rural Alberta

Solar farms are beginning to sprout up in Alberta and rural municipal representatives are hearing more concerns from ratepayers.

Lacombe County Reeve Barb Shepherd said on Thursday she was recently at a meeting of central Alberta leaders where the concern was raised that municipalities are not part of the equation when solar farms are given approval.

Coun. Ken Weenink agreed it has become an issue for many rural residents.

“There’s got to be something as a council we can do to make sure we don’t lose all our agricultural land to solar farms,” he said at Lacombe County’s Thursday council meeting.

Weenink said the county should invite a representative from Pace Canada LP, the company that has a 47-megawatt solar under construction near Joffre, to provide information on the approval process for solar farms.

The Alberta Utilities Commission approves solar power projects.

Dale Freitag, the county’s director of planning services, said municipalities cannot prevent provincial approvals even if there were municipal concerns about how close a project was to homes or a lake.

Municipalities are not left entirely out of the decision-making process. Regulators try to work with communities before a project is approved. There is also a legislated public consultation process to give affected residents a say.

Freitag said the approval process is similar to that which applies to many oil and gas projects, which require no county approval.

There are areas where the municipality can have a say. For instance, a traffic impact assessment could be required for a solar farm or the county could require a certain level of landscaping.

There are ramifications if municipalities seek to get involved in the approval process, said Coun. Brenda Knight.

“The real crux is telling landowners what they can and cannot do on their land,” said Knight, adding it can become a “touchy” right of ownership issue.

Shepherd agreed there are wider implications if municipalities seek a say in whether a solar project goes ahead or not.

“Do you get into the business of telling landowners what they can do with their land? It is a two-edged sword, for sure.”

Rural Municipalities of Alberta members passed a resolution sponsored by Mountain View County at its fall convention last November calling on the province “to work collaboratively on policy that will find a balance between the development of renewable energy and protection of valuable agriculture lands.”

The resolution charges that the AUC approval process for renewable energy projects on private land “currently has little to no regard for the rural municipalities’ statutory plans or requirement for consultation with the municipalities.”

The province is called on to collect all the necessary data to provide a picture of the long-term costs and benefits of renewable energy projects while finding a balance to protect both the energy and agricultural industries.

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