ST. PAUL – A proposed commercial wind turbine project in the County of St. Paul continues to generate discussion as landowners in the area weigh the pros and cons of such a development. The debate has now made its way to the County council table with councillors tasking administration with determining exactly what controls if any the municipality has over the scope of the project and mitigating potential impacts to county infrastructure and adjacent landowners.
News of the commercial wind farm first began circulating almost six years ago as landowners in the Shamrock Valley/Chicken Hill area in the eastern portion of County first began to receive visits from a land agent looking to secure access to land over a proposed area of 10,000 to 15,000 acres. At that time a Northland Power spokesperson indicated the project would initially involve about 30 turbines which could expand to include anywhere between 60 to 90 turbines as the project developed over a larger land base in ensuing years.
There is now some indication the company is considering an area further to the east of Shamrock Valley Road in the area of Range Road 71 and 73, north and south of Hwy. 29 as landowners in the area confirm they have been approached. Meanwhile, Northland Power continues to reveal little about it other than to confirm the St. Paul area project is one of several being considered in Alberta.
Overall approval for a wind turbine project falls under provincial authority, specifically it would need the nod from the Alberta Utilities Commission (AUC). The AUC has yet to receive an application related to this proposal from Northland Power. The County of St. Paul has also not been approached.
“Projects of this type must be applied for and, to be approved, determined to be in the public interest with a particular focus on social, environmental and economic concerns and factors,” Geoff Scotton, AUC Senior Communications Advisor, said in an interview earlier this month with Lakeland Today.
In considering a project, Scotton indicated the AUC will review, among other things, noise, environmental and visual impacts. He said wind projects are treated no differently than any other type of electrical generation by the AUC.
County CAO Sheila Kitz said if Northland Power was to make application to the AUC and received its approval, it would follow that the County would then likely issue a development permit with conditions.
“The County does have control over the process and conditions for the approval of the development permit,” Kitz state, following the Feb. 22 Public Works meeting where it was discussed. “Through this process the County can provide some assurance for landowners affected by the development that items like road conditions, setbacks, buffer zones, etc. are adhered to before the development can proceed.”
The issue made its way onto the Public Works agenda following receipt of a letter from County landowner Chris Habiak, who is steadfastly opposed to the building of commercial wind farms in the municipality.
Landowner seeks municipal controls
While Habiak would like to see a stop to the development of commercial wind energy systems in the County altogether, he asked that council at the very least consider a moratorium on such projects until a complete review and updating of land use bylaws can be undertaken. He also requested there be a clear distinction between private and commercial wind farm systems and if a commercial project was to receive approval, that wind turbines be positioned a minimum of 10 km away from the nearest dwelling.
Given the experience in some countries where massive towers have remained idle years after they have been decommissioned, Habiak is also urging the County to consider requiring the developer to set aside funds in a trust arrangement for the deconstruction and reclamation costs should that be necessary in the future.
Habiak said public consultation prior to an undertaking of private land lease acquisition would go a long way towards landowners being more aware of the project before a land agent knocks on the door.
“It was good to hear that they had very many concerns about this and other potential projects and did acknowledge that they are currently unprepared for this kind of development,” Habiak said in response to council’s discussion of the issue. While he admits he had “shot for the stars” in his letter, he is optimistic council is recognizing some steps need to be taken in order to be appropriately prepared for this type of development.
Kitz said during the council discussion, Gary Buchanan from the County’s Planning and Development department was able to provide some insights as to possible areas the County could address. While there are tax assessment benefits from this type of development for the municipality, Kitz said Buchanan cautioned it can also present challenges particularly in regard to road use agreements, buffer zones and reclamation standards and requirements.
“Gary also recommended that it is important for the County to consider updates to our Municipal Development Plan, Land Use Bylaw, and development fees associated with industrial development,” Kitz noted. Additionally, he recommended the municipality “consider reaching out to the company to partner on community engagement so that the County is in on the initial discussions with ratepayers and can hear from residents what their concerns are and how these might be mitigated if the development proceeds.”
Council has asked administration to provide options for changes to these statutory plans, which will then brought back to the council table for discussion, possibly as soon as the March 21 Public Works meeting.
Increasing interest in Alberta
In recent years, Alberta has seen increasing interest from developers for both wind and solar power projects, much of that sparked by its de-regulated market which enables private companies to connect their power generation projects to the provincially owned power grid. What also holds appeal is the opportunity to sell carbon credits, earned by wind and solar companies, to industries not so carbon-neutral – something that is allowable under the province’s Technology Innovation and Emissions Reduction (TIER) regulation.
Ron Magnuson of Lomond in Vulcan County, in southern Alberta, is one of a group of concerned citizens who attempted to stop or at least get some concessions over the development of the Buffalo Plains Wind Farm – a project that will see over 80 turbines erected over a landscape involving approximately 17,500 acres of privately-owned land. That battle ended in mid-February when the AUC gave its approval to developer ABO Wind Canada Ltd. to proceed.
“We totally, unequivocally lost,” Magnuson said in an interview with Lakeland Today late last month. “We weren’t really delusional enough to think we were going to stop it, but we thought we would get some conditions. We failed to get anything.”
Magnuson isn’t sure he will stay on the land that has been in his family for over 100 years. The massive turbines will be visible in all four directions from his yard. He’s not sure he even wants to be around for the construction phase, which will see thousands of truckloads of heavy materials rumble past his land.
“In my case, we have seven wind towers within two miles. Lomond is a pretty obscure place – you don’t live here because you value services, or you care about going to the movies or getting pizza. You live here because you like living in the country,” he said, expressing his love for a lifestyle that he fears will quickly disappear. “For us, to impair the viewscape, to listen to the noise, to get the shadow-flicker but to have no consideration for dropping our property value, I think it is unfair.”
Magnuson said he believes the AUC recognizes that property values in areas where a project is being developed could be negatively impacted but at this point there does not seem to be any appetite to go after developers for that type of compensation.
“It becomes a transfer of wealth from rural Alberta, in this case, to a company named Buffalo Plains, to its parent company ABO in Germany.”
Magnuson said he spent many years as a farmer dealing with oil and gas companies, and while at times it may have been a love/hate relationship, at least he knew the companies were largely based out of Calgary and had some concept of what would work on an Alberta farm and what would not.
“Most of them are pretty reasonable,” he said. “I have never seen a level of arrogance in the oil patch that I see in the wind business. Decisions are made in Germany and they could care less how it impacts you. There’s no relationship to the people it affects.”
He believes Alberta, the land of oil and gas, hasn’t properly prepared itself for massive commercial wind turbine power generation projects and their impact on local communities. He also believes that down the road these wind farm projects will potentially be used to “green wash” oil production in the province.
“Federally there is support for them, but it is gypsy-magic to try and figure out that whole payment system of energy right now through carbon credits.”
While the land agents came into the Lomond area selling “stories about rainbows and unicorns,” the reality is less rosy, he said.
“You’ve given them long-term control of your land and, yes, you’re getting a fee for it but 20 years from now who knows what kind of industrial structure could go up on that area that they’ve leased. It might be another wind tower, or it might be who knows what, but you have no control of it anymore, you’ve given it up to a wind company.”
Asked if he had any advice for residents in the County of St. Paul with concerns over the proposed Northland Power project, Magnuson said lessons learned from his own group’s battle lends him to believe the devil lies in the details. He said wind power is an accepted form of power generation in Alberta and so it is important to drill down to the specific local impacts and the details of the particular project that is being proposed.
“There’s a process and nobody cares if you don’t like wind power, that’s not the issue. That horse left the barn a long time ago. Get over it. If you want to stop this thing, and your chances are slim to none, you need to be professional about it.”
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