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Zoning delayed for Cypress wind project

A zoning decision for a planned $250-million wind farm in Cypress County has been postponed two weeks as councillors seek more information on how wind turbines are decommissioned and who is responsible for potential liabilities.

On Tuesday, they tabled the related bylaw and directed administrators to study how landowners and the county could be shielded, and present at council’s mid-October meeting.

The developer, EDF Renewables, stated afterwards that such concerns are common, but its business plan, contracts with landowners and requirements from regulators all include abandonment plans 25 years in the future.

“In the mid term we’ll provide as much information as we can, but it’s important that the public process is adhered to,” said Mark Gallagher, a company spokesman. “We’d rather have a delay and everyone’s concerns addressed.”

Cypress Wind Partners, LP, is currently applying to provincial utility regulators to build the 48-turbine array on parcels of land located 10 kilometres south of Irvine. The planned operating date is mid-2021, meaning construction could begin next spring.

That land however, near the junction of Highways 41 and 515, must also be zoned for the project, and two dozen residents attended the public hearing on Tuesday in Dunmore.

No written submissions were received and two opponents focused on the economics of green energy and the need to protect the grasslands environment.

Councillors spent more time during the hearing and later debate of the zoning bylaw, discussing how to avoid a repeat of oil and gas abandonment issues in 20 to 25 years when the wind farm is decommissioned.

“Right now there are a lot of orphan wells, and companies that have gone broke, and we’re stuck with them,” said Coun. Shane Hok.

Coun. Dustin Vossler moved to table the item and that was unanimously accepted.

If approved, the zoning change would be the third passed in Cypress County over the past five years, and the specific change would involve about 20 sections of land bordering the western edge of Highway 41.

A Renewable Energy District allows industrial equipment to be operated in the area with no changes to agricultural use.

All of the land in question is cultivated, and during a presentation EDF officials said agreement for the project is secured from “97 per cent” of landowners within a 1.5 kilometres of the project boundaries.

The company states that the project would provide long-term revenue to the county and landowners, and about $90 million of the construction budget would be spent within 100 kilometres.

Councillors wondered if they could require a bond be secured to cover costs, as is done with county roads around industrial projects.

CAO Tarolyn Aaserud said the county can’t require a bond to insure against damage on private property, where the 48 towers would be located.

“Our authority extends to the land use and the road use,” she said, stating that the county could require a bond on public roads.

County staff will provide and overview at next meeting.

Coun. Alf Belyea said mining, forestry and petroleum sectors have such requirements enshrined by the province and utility firms should be no different.

“I think wind industry has to come to the fore,” said Hok.

Elkwater-area Coun. Ernest Mudie said he felt discussions are too late for this proposal, but should be taken up by higher levels of government. He cited existing approved other zoning and development permits for wind and solar projects.

Coun. Richard Oster said if landowners, who are in control of approving lease and access agreements, seem to be in favour, why should the county object?

“Their eyes are wide open and they still want it built, so let’s let them build it,” he said.

One objection during the hearing came from Paul von Huene, who lives four kilometres east of the area and is worried about the environmental effects and the overall business case of green energy.

“This project isn’t giving us something for nothing,” he said, stating he believed higher utility bills would result and the project would be an eyesore.

He said he and his wife specifically moved to Cypress County 20 years ago to avoid “an assault of oil and gas (development), irrigation pivots or highway noise” to raise organic beef.

Currently, there are 10 facilities proposed for the area southeast of Medicine Hat, he said, which could comprise 700 turbines if they are all approved.

“It’s 50 per cent more than the MD of Pincher Creek’s and in a much smaller area,” said von Huene.

Gallagher said the company is the first to have a major proposal move forward in the area, and shouldn’t be punished because others may follow.

Also, he said the contract his company won during a low-cost auction process last year produced “record low prices in Canada and North America,” and the contract it structured to pay the government the difference if price rises higher, taking taxpayers off the hook.

“The reverse is true, the government will make money off these projects, if the price stays above (3.8 cents per kilowatt),” he said.

“We’re not making a $250-million investment without a good business case.”