Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

Vulcan County reeve Jason Schneider on his farm near Vulcan, Alta. on Jan. 2, 2020.Todd Korol/The Globe and Mail

New government-imposed restrictions on renewable energy projects in Alberta may not spell the sector’s demise.

Industry officials and rural leaders have welcomed the end of a costly moratorium on approvals for wind and solar projects, imposed by the Alberta government last summer. That pause prompted renewables developers to rethink investments in the province.

But some are now lamenting the fact that the moratorium is being replaced with new rules, announced by Premier Danielle Smith this week, that impose sweeping restrictions on where and how such projects can be built, including a ban on wind projects near what the province calls “pristine viewscapes.” Those rules lack detail in key areas, and have been criticized for creating uncertainty.

Even so, renewable industry representatives say they still believe the province has some attributes in its favour. Those include wind and solar resources and a deregulated energy market, as well as major buyers that want to invest in power-purchase agreements with generators.

If the province clarifies its new policy measures, the industry could get back on track relatively quickly, said Evan Wilson, the vice-president of policy for the Canadian Renewable Energy Association.

“I would say that it continues to be Alberta’s race to lose for capital here,” he said.

Alberta has been the site of the lion’s share of renewables spending in Canada. The province accounted for 92 per cent of Canadian wind, solar and energy-storage capacity additions last year, even during the moratorium.

The rapid growth was part of the problem, said Jason Schneider, the reeve of Vulcan County in Southern Alberta, home of the largest solar farm in Canada.

For years, his region welcomed new renewables projects, including a 166-turbine wind farm that started operating about a decade ago. Mr. Schneider said he has never had an angry phone call about the farm. But legislation didn’t keep up with the pace of growth, he said. And over the past few years, he has noticed an uptick in projects that seem to want to exploit the provincial utilities regulator’s approval process to make a quick buck.

“I shouldn’t even call them developers, because they’re not. They were basically speculators who were just trying to get a quick approval then flip it or sell it to someone else,” he said.

Mr. Schneider doesn’t think the new rules announced this week are antagonistic to the renewables industry. He said he doubts they will make much of a difference to legitimate project proponents, who already factor in end-of-life reclamation costs, are conscientious about conserving farmland, and work well with landowners and communities.

The new rules place tighter restrictions on building wind and solar farms on fertile farmland, and they obligate renewable energy developers to put up securities or bonds for cleanup when projects reach the ends of their useful lives.

“I just want to make sure that we’re doing this responsibly, because when we do it responsibly, it’s great for rural Alberta,” Mr. Schneider added.

Wind and solar projects contributed $28-million to rural Alberta municipal coffers in 2022, according to an analysis by the Business Renewables Centre-Canada. The sector has been a game-changer for municipalities in the southeast of the province in particular, said Rural Municipalities of Alberta president Paul McLauchlin.

“It’s literally revived these communities and is an amazing opportunity for them” after serious economic setbacks from the collapse of the oil and gas industry in their region, he said.

He predicts the oil and gas industry will enter a death spiral in the next 10 years, but he is confident renewable energy projects will continue to pop up. And many municipalities are already looking at zoning opportunities to create renewable energy centres, he added.

The new rules will give municipalities more of a say in how projects are developed within their boundaries. Mr. McLauchlin said that can only be a good thing – and he said it avoids what he calls “agsplaining,” where city-dwellers develop policy without an understanding of the realities of rural Alberta.

With Alberta facing an extreme drought and the impacts of climate change, the need for better land use planning is undeniable, stakeholders say.

“If we’re talking about how we better co-locate renewable projects with agricultural land, let’s have that conversation,” the Canadian Renewable Energy Association’s Mr. Wilson said. “If we’re talking about what’s the best way to bring municipalities into the process to ensure that they feel seen and consulted with, let’s have that conversation. When we’re talking about reclamation securities, let’s get some transparency on these things.”

One new rule announced this week that has created confusion among supporters of renewables is a requirement for a minimum 35-kilometre buffer zone around what the province deems “protected areas and other pristine viewscapes.” Wind projects would be banned in these areas and other projects would require visual impact assessments.

Katie Morrison, the executive director of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, said the changes do little to address Alberta’s deep-seated problems with development on sensitive land.

“It slaps an arbitrary buffer around protected areas for renewable energy only, while continuing to allow whole other types of industrial development within those same landscapes,” she said.

A map created by the wilderness society shows that the policy, if applied to all protected areas and parks in the province, would affect vast swaths of land, most of which will remain open to development of other resources, such as coal, oil and gas.

“We need to be looking at the whole landscape and where any industrial or energy development is appropriate in planning that long-term view,” she said. “I can’t imagine that they would slap such an arbitrary buffer or no-go zone on other industrial developments.”

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe