Alberta’s utilities commission will continue to process applications for renewables projects as it completes a government-mandated review, but new applications – and possibly those already in the pipeline – will have to include a swath of additional information about issues such as agricultural land, viewscapes and reclamation security.
The United Conservative Party government imposed a seven-month halt on application approvals for new wind and solar projects on Aug. 3. Renewable-energy developers and investors have expressed their frustration and questioned the stated reasons for the move, 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 surprise announcement from Utilities and Affordability Minister Nathan Neudorf.
In a notice posted to the AUC website Tuesday afternoon, chair Carolyn Dahl Rees said the commission will continue to process applications for new hydro developments and renewable power plants up to the approval stage. That includes wind, solar, geothermal and sustainable biomass projects greater than one megawatt.
However, she added, the AUC will also add new information requirements relating to agricultural land, viewscapes and reclamation security to new applications – a requirement she said may also extend to existing applications.
But the commission has not yet said exactly what information will be required, which has done little to quell industry concerns.
Jorden Dye is the acting director of the Business Renewables Centre Canada, which acts as an information and networking organization for green energy buyers and sellers.
While the speed of the decision signalled that the AUC understands the severity of the market risk caused by the moratorium, he said in an interview Wednesday, the new information requirements have added a layer of uncertainty for developers – particularly those with existing projects.
Mr. Neudorf told The Globe and Mail in an interview earlier this month that the government considered ordering the review without pausing approvals. But he thought that approach “lacked the transparency and clarity” around timelines, and would cause developers to look over their shoulders and wonder when the government will enact policy changes.
Mr. Dye argues that’s exactly what is happening.
“By not grandfathering in projects, it calls into question projects that have already gone through their entire process to get ready for regulatory review,” he said, adding that it’s far from how a government typically handles market interactions.
“At this point, each announcement from the government has further increased uncertainty rather than reducing it, and that is the exact opposite signal that they want to be sending to the market.”
Nagwan Al-Guneid, the Alberta NDP energy and climate critic for renewables and electricity, said the government “clearly does not understand this industry and the potential opportunity it provides the Alberta economy.”
“Investors need final approval to commit,” she said in a statement.
“The UCP government must completely lift this seven-month ban on renewables to restore investors’ confidence in our province again.”
Alberta was leading Canada in renewables growth when the moratorium was imposed. Since 2019, $4.7-billion has been invested into its renewable energy sector, and there are 3,400 megawatts of wind and solar projects under construction in the province, worth nearly $3-billion.
Renewables executives have warned that pausing approvals could cause billions of dollars in green investments to flow to the United States and Europe instead. The industry has created 5,300 jobs and contributed millions of dollars in property taxes and annual payments to landowners, according to BRC-Canada.
But some rural residents have pushed back against wind and solar projects, arguing they are ugly and take up valuable agricultural land. The Rural Municipalities of Alberta passed a resolution last year at its fall convention that urged the province to learn from its mistakes with fossil fuels and deal with the end-of-life issue for renewables before it’s too late.
The approvals freeze will expire on Feb. 29, 2024. The AUC has until March 29 to submit the results of its review to Mr. Neudorf.