The reeve of Paintearth County, a small municipality in central Alberta, wasn’t always in favour of renewable energy development, but Stan Schulmeister’s tune changed when he was elected and saw the outsized effect wind farms in the area have had on local tax revenue.
Paintearth, about 150 kilometres east of Red Deer, is among dozens of rural municipalities in the province that collectively received more than $28-million from wind and solar projects last year, according to an analysis by the Business Renewables Centre-Canada.
Mr. Schulmeister worries about how the United Conservative government’s pause on renewable development approvals will affect future revenue.
Alberta leads Canada in renewable development, with nearly $4.7-billion in new projects since 2019. The vast majority are in the south, which has wind and hundreds of sunny days.
Such projects bring cash to municipalities through land taxes. BRC-Canada obtained the 2022 tax assessment value of each project, and the local mill rate, to arrive at the $28-million figure. The proportion of renewables revenue in each municipality’s bottom line varies. For Cypress County, which covers Alberta’s southeastern-most corner, it’s only around 1 per cent. But head west to 40 Mile, the county next door, and renewables comprise more than half of municipal revenue.
Paintearth received around $2.5-million in 2022, which represented 15.7 per cent of its total intake.
“It’s huge,” Mr. Schulmeister said in an interview. “When you’re running on a $14-million budget, that all helps.”
The cash that flows to the municipality from wind projects has helped keep Paintearth’s land taxes among the lowest in the province, Mr. Schulmeister said. It has also gone a long way to plugging the fiscal gap caused by a downturn in local oil and gas activity.
“Something has to replace that, or we have to go into the pocket of every taxpayer and ask for more,” he said. “Renewables are just one revenue stream that we’re going to depend on, I think.”
Cash from renewables is set to swell Paintearth’s coffers even further in the coming months and years, with solar projects in the works and three more wind projects at various stages of completion.
Based on BRC-Canada’s calculations and projects in the Alberta Electric System Operator’s connection queue, revenue to Alberta municipalities is projected to increase by six to nine times – or an additional $170-million to $250-million – in just a few years.
But “anytime you stop something … investors may find a new place to invest. And that’s always a bit of a concern,” Mr. Schulmeister said. “We have a pretty robust economy and I’d like to see it stay that way.”
The provincial government ordered the Alberta Utilities Commission to halt approvals for all renewable projects in August, citing the need to review rules around reclamation, how wind and solar installations affect viewscapes and worries that prime agricultural land is being used for energy instead of grazing or growing crops. The pause is set to expire on Feb. 29, 2024.
The government did not consult with the renewables sector before the surprise announcement, which drew a widespread rebuke from municipalities, Indigenous communities, companies and industry groups.
BRC-Canada’s acting director Jorden Dye said the group conducted the analysis to fill a gaping data gap. With so many projects in the connection queue, he said, even a short pause risks delaying projects and jeopardizes much-needed revenue.
Alberta Utilities and Affordability Minister Nathan Neudorf countered that no current or in-construction projects are affected by the pause, so the renewable energy tax revenue of municipalities is stable.
And the government-mandated review has received “broad support from rural municipalities, including those with large renewable investments,” he said in an e-mailed statement.
One of those is the Municipal District of Pincher Creek, deep in Alberta’s south.
The first commercial wind farm in Canada, Cowley Ridge, was built there in 1993. But Reeve Rick Lemire said the rapid buildout of wind projects with little to no ability for input has left a bad taste in the mouths of many residents.
The municipal district received more than $4.6-million from renewables in 2022, representing 31.3 per cent of its total revenue. But Mr. Lemire said people in his neck of the woods would rather pay higher land taxes than see more wind turbines, according to recent surveys.
There was such vocal opposition to more wind farms that the council instituted its own one-year pause late in October, 2021, to figure out land use bylaws governing where turbines should and should not be built, he said. (The study is not yet complete, and was last year extended for another 12 months.)
“It’s important to us, the money, but it’s the residents that we’re looking after,” he said in an interview.
Pincher Creek is one of three communities where the Alberta Utilities Commission has chosen to hold public consultations about the renewables review.
Mr. Lemire expects a large turnout from locals, many of whom he said are opposed to a wind project further south that will result in large transmission lines running through the area.
The other two public meetings are set for Medicine Hat, a city of around 63,000 people in the southeast, and Red Deer, which lies halfway between Calgary and Edmonton.
Mr. Dye with BRC-Canada said scheduling meetings for the smaller affected communities is a good move, but he’d like to see more – including in Edmonton and Calgary, where the vast majority of wind and solar companies are based.
As the Alberta Utilities Commission completes its review, which is due to the government by the end of March, Mr. Schulmeister hopes members of the commission “do their homework and get it right.”
“There’s no companies here trying to pull a fast one. They want to do something that’s viable,” he said. “I support the industry, because if they can make a buck, they’ll invest that buck back in Alberta.”