The persistent westerly winds in Alberta’s southwest are a blessing and a curse, depending on time of year and desired activity.
Among those considering it a blessing are renewable energy development companies that have erected hundreds of wind turbines in the region, many of them in the Municipal District of Pincher Creek, where Alberta’s wind energy business began.
But as turbine numbers have increased, rural residents once largely supportive of harnessing wind energy are expressing concerns about the size, location and proliferation of the turbines and the transmission lines needed to move their production into the electrical grid.
“In each five year increment, starting with 1996, there’s been a 20 percent drop in the approval of the citizens for wind within our municipality. That leaves us at about 55 percent for, 45 percent against,” said Gavin Scott, senior planner with the Oldman River Regional Services Commission.
Roland Milligan, director of development and community services with the Pincher Creek M.D., confirmed those figures. He said the first survey of residents, done in 2006, showed 90 percent were in favour of wind development. That had dropped to 54 percent in favour in the last survey done in 2017.
What has changed?
Scott attributes it to several factors. Sheer number of turbines is part of it. The municipality has 236 installed wind turbines. Projects now under construction or pending will increase that number to about 400.
“It seems like there’s a lot already but there’s another third yet to come and that begins to start to tell the story of where Pincher is … a question about land capacity and how much carrying capacity the land has for wind turbines,” Scott told the Southern Alberta Energy Forum.
Size is another factor. The first commercial wind facility in Canada at Cowley Ridge, erected in 1993-94, had turbines 24.5 metres high. Towers in more recent projects are 175 metres.
“That’s quite an impression on the landscape,” said Scott. “The visual effects have turned landowners against the industry. On top of that, the nighttime lighting is driving some of them nuts. Flash, flash, flash for the airplanes.”
Bobbi Lambright lives on rural property in the M.D. of Pincher Creek. A former utility company executive, she is also a member of the Livingstone Landowners Group (LLG) that is concerned about wind projects and associated transmission line projects that damage native grassland and impede the region’s scenic views of the Rocky Mountains.
The LLG was instrumental in halting the proposed Windy Point wind generation project that would have seen 12 turbines installed on privately owned land within the M.D.
Lambright said renewable energy is an important consideration in view of climate change but protection of Alberta’s dwindling native grassland is vital.
“We are also the last one percent of the great plains of North American … and the only area that still has virtually a full complement of native species,” she said.
“As that development gets more and more concentrated, the risk both to the plants, the unique plants that we have, and to the wildlife that rely on those plants, becomes much, much greater.”
Wind development involves much more than turbines, she added. Transmission lines, substations and other electrical infrastructure, as well as access and service roads, become necessary.
“Because of the wind development occurring in all of southern Alberta, our particular area in the eastern slopes of the M.D. of Pincher Creek, has been targeted for some very significant transmission development solely for the purpose of connecting wind,” said Lambright.
Companies that undertake wind energy projects and transmission line projects are required to carry out environmental assessments as part of their submissions to the Alberta Utilities Commission. Potential impact on grasslands and wildlife are part of those assessments.
“On a one-off, that may look OK but what starts to happen is cumulative impact. So now you’ve got that project. Then you’ve got another project right beside it and another project right beside it. And you start to get this tremendous concentration of development, both wind and transmission,” said Lambright.
“What we’re seeing is industrial creep is starting to have a much bigger impact than I think anybody could have imagined 10 years ago and it’s only going to get worse.”
From a municipality standpoint, however, the projects generate tax revenue and spin-off construction and supply activity that augment the economy and widen the tax base.
Scott said existing installations generate about $3.5 million in taxes alone for the M.D. and have generated $100 million in investment.
“That is a large chunk of change for what was a very poor municipality focused mainly on ranching,” he said.
“The view isn’t paying taxes,” he said. “The rate of taxes on agricultural land is minor. If you relied on the taxes … being able to tax farmers and ranchers to pay for all the services and roads and that, they would all go broke. It’s a balancing act, right? They want services but… you have to put up with some industrial development. Oil and gas isn’t going to be around here forever.”
Milligan acknowledged concerns from the LLG and others about preserving native grasslands. That became more of an issue after the South Saskatchewan Regional Plan put more emphasis on conservation. That plan was completed after the M.D. had already rezoned several areas as wind farm industrial, he said.
However, M.D. approval of wind projects is not necessarily required in order for wind development projects to proceed. The AUC is the arbiter of that.
Alberta’s electrical demand is an issue.
“Alberta is a net importer of power. That’s what people don’t realize,” Milligan said. “We have always been behind the eight-ball in generation. We’re a net importer. We don’t export power.”
Further to the turbine lighting issue on turbines, he said that seems to be of greater concern for residents than the actual height of the turbines.
“One of the big issues is the lighting requirements that Transport Canada puts on these things. There isn’t a whole bunch of aircraft flying through here to our airport but … the whole wind farm has to flash.”
However, two new wind installations, Riverview and Castle Rock Ridge Expansion, propose to install radar lighting that will only shine when approaching planes are detected.
Lambright said wind projects should be sited on agricultural land rather than native grassland because reclamation after construction disturbance is easier on land already disturbed.
She and the LLG would also like to see firmer rules regarding location for both turbines and transmission lines.
“There are a lot of guidelines, but they are guidelines,” she said. “I would love to see those translated into much firmer rules and regulations and I would like the transmission to have the same rules and regulations because they get off a little lighter than the requirements for the wind farm.”