It could be years before the Alberta government implements all of the changes it expects to emerge from an inquiry into renewable energy rules in the province, but Premier Danielle Smith promises that a pause on project approvals will lift at the end of February.
The United Conservative government ordered in August that the Alberta Utility Commission halt all approvals on renewable energy projects, citing concerns about various issues such as how renewables affect land use and viewscapes, and end-of-life rules of solar and wind projects. The commission has until the end of March to complete a review and report back to the government.
Utilities and Affordability Minister Nathan Neudorf told The Globe and Mail that the government expects to have a “fairly clear vision” of where Alberta is now and how it needs to change shortly after the commission completes its report.
That will allow the market to proceed with “a pretty good understanding of where we’re going,” Mr. Neudorf said, but he acknowledged that it will take a lot longer to put in place specific new regulations and legislation.
“To be perfectly transparent, it could take two or three years to have every single part and piece written,” he said in an interview Thursday.
Still, Mr. Neudorf believes that the initial report will give investors and developers initial indications about what changes the sector will see, including which land is off-limits for new wind and solar projects.
Even if it takes a few years to institute new rules, renewable developers just want to ensure that the pause will not extend past Feb. 29, said the Canadian Renewable Energy Association’s (CanREA) vice-president of policy, Evan Wilson.
“It will probably not be easy for people, but as long as we know that changes aren’t enforceable until legislation is changed, then we’re going to be comfortable,” he said in an interview.
Ms. Smith confirmed Thursday that the pause would end on Feb. 29, but she said her government plans to get pieces into place earlier than that “so that we can get some certainty in the industry in the early part of next year.”
But “it should be no secret” where the government is headed with changes, she added.
That includes incentives for Albertans to build rooftop solar, ensuring new wind farms don’t affect migratory birds and bats or neighbouring properties, and developing guidelines that encourage new projects to tap existing electrical grid infrastructure to avoid building too many new transmission lines.
Also, making sure there is a “logical way of setting money aside” to clean up projects when they reach the end of their life.
The commission has set three public consultation dates as part of its review, and stakeholders are able to make submissions until Nov. 22.
The renewables review has in some circles been framed as a rural Alberta versus industry fight, but Rural Municipalities of Alberta (RMA) and CanREA have joined forces on their submissions to the commission.
The groups applied together to the commission for cash to fund a consultant report on two issues: Reclamation practices and end-of-life securities; and how agricultural land can responsibly play host to renewable energy projects.
“We will be working together as we go through this to ensure where we can find places of alignment and where we are aligned and where we have the same priorities, that we are speaking with one voice, really to show that this doesn’t have to be an antagonistic process,” Mr. Wilson told the Pembina Institute’s climate summit in Calgary on Thursday.
Speaking with The Globe afterward, Mr. Wilson said discussions between CanREA and RMA about land-use and reclamation have been going on for years, but the commission inquiry gave the groups the chance to do something more formal about the opportunities and challenges of renewable projects in rural Alberta.
“At the end of the day, there is real opportunity for CanREA members and there is real opportunity for RMA members,” Mr. Wilson said.
“There are differences of opinions sometimes, and it is in our best interest to figure out where we can agree on stuff and work together on it.”
Paul McLauchlin, president of the RMA, said co-operation makes sense because both organizations are data-driven and focused on solutions.
“There’s this belief that the AUC is going to solve all the world’s problems; they will not. So we collectively said, ‘Let’s work together to solve these problems and look at it from our perspective,’ ” Mr. McLauchlin said in an interview Thursday.
“I don’t want to fight. I want to solve problems.”