The Alberta government should lift its pause on renewable energy development approvals because they threaten thousands of jobs and could stifle billions of dollars in investment in the province, according to hundreds of letters from individuals, companies, municipalities, Indigenous communities and industry groups.
The backlash paints a picture of overwhelming frustration in the renewables sector, in the wake of the United Conservative government’s order last month that the Alberta Utilities Commission pause application approvals for new wind, solar, geothermal and biomass projects.
The move drew the ire of developers and investors who have questioned the stated reasons, which include addressing end-of-life reclamation and studying how more renewables affect arable farmland and grid reliability. No industry groups nor companies affected by the freeze on Alberta’s multibillion-dollar industry were consulted before the announcement.
The government gave the AUC until the end of March to review the issues. But the commission further shook industry confidence late Wednesday when it announced a swath of additional information requirements for new renewable energy project applications, even before starting its inquiry. The AUC said in an e-mail that gathering uniform information will help the review panel understand the potential impacts of individual projects, and how broad the problems are.
While many of the new requirements seem reasonable, the sector needs to see the full inquiry process as soon as possible, said Jorden Dye, acting director of the Business Renewables Centre-Canada.
Some of the requirements introduced by the AUC lack clarity, Mr. Dye said. And it’s unclear how answers will be weighed or what standards are being set, making for a more unpredictable application system, which will only further undercut investor confidence.
“This sporadic trickle of information isn’t good for market certainty,” he said in an interview Thursday.
When the government ordered the AUC to pause approvals, the commission asked stakeholders for feedback on how it might best institute the moratorium that runs to the end of February.
The resulting 609 pages of feedback were overwhelmingly negative about the approvals ban, with the vast majority requesting it be scrapped.
It’s unnecessary, they argued, and will threaten thousands of jobs, increase electricity costs, stifle billions of dollars in investment and slow efforts to address climate change. If a pause must occur, they wrote, the AUC should continue to fully process new and existing applications while it undertakes the government-mandated review.
While many of those requests came to the AUC via a form letter, the same concerns were echoed independently by dozens of companies across various sectors, including renewable energy, traditional oil and gas, power supply and manufacturing.
Take food processing giant McCain Foods Ltd., which is trying to secure renewable power sources at its potato processing plant in Coaldale, near Lethbridge in southern Alberta.
McCain announced a $600-million expansion earlier this year to double the size of the facility. It’s the largest investment in the company’s history, creating 260 new jobs and installing wind turbines and solar panels to provide the site with 100-per-cent renewable electricity. It also plans to use biogas to run boilers, cutting its natural gas consumption.
Leaving the application window open during the review will allow proponents to “advance meaningful work on project development,” McCain wrote in a letter to the AUC. It added that the commission should also set a transition date stating when any regulatory changes would come into effect, thereby bolstering regulatory certainty.
“A full halt to site development work and AUC applications seems to be a needlessly cautious approach where industry-leading standards and regulations have been in place for years,” McCain wrote in its submission.
“Ultimately, such an abrupt stop to project applications is very detrimental to regulatory certainty.”
Some municipalities also weighed in, including the Town of Innisfail, in central Alberta.
It’s preparing an application for a 2-megawatt solar farm for a brownfield site in the town’s industrial area, and registered several concerns about the pause. The town has already spent more than $100,000 for plans and studies to fulfill the approval process. It intended to begin construction in mid-2024 and argued in its submission that such a small project won’t affect the supply mix of Alberta’s power grid.
“This project is intended to utilize lands that are not suitable for any sort of industrial development and will serve as a stable, non-tax revenue source for our community,” it said, and should therefore not be subject to the pause.
Camrose County also requested that the AUC continue processing applications right up to the approval stage to “reduce the potential economic hardships caused by delaying the process, minimizing the backlog that could be created by the delay and ensuring the existing public engagement work continues in a timely fashion for landowners adjacent to projects already in process.”
The City of Edmonton said the approvals pause should be reduced as much as possible to ensure the city can reach its target of becoming carbon neutral by 2050 – which relies heavily on Alberta transitioning to a net-zero power grid.
Not all respondents opposed the pause. Some said it was key to resolving issues around land-use arguments that have sown division in their communities. Others argued it was necessary to ensure wind turbines or solar panels aren’t left to rust in fields if companies go bust or walk away from their projects.
One Calgary-based renewables company, Azgard Solar, fully supported the pause. The issues being examined by the AUC “are pivotal to the long-term success of renewable energy development in Alberta,” the company wrote.
“This pause allows us the opportunity to thoroughly evaluate the implications and ensure the most effective strategies are implemented.”