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Frank Lake is adjacent to Elemental Energy’s proposed 150 MW Foothills Solar project. The lake, as an Important Bird Area, hosts a significant number of species-at-risk. Pictured here are American White Pelicans, a sensitive species in Alberta.Handout

Ian Urquhart is a professor emeritus at the University of Alberta.

“Unprecedented growth” and “a renewables boom.” Those are two phrases used by the Business Renewables Centre, an initiative of the Pembina Institute, to anoint Alberta as Canada’s wind and solar capital in a recent report that cited nearly $4-billion in renewable energy projects underway in the province.

This spectacular expansion in Alberta’s green energy investment is very welcome news. Rapidly increasing renewable energy’s share of electricity production is vital to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

But much of that environmental promise depends on where such projects are located. If sited poorly, utility-scale green energy projects can transform environmental positives into negatives by threatening prized ecological values, as well as aesthetic and cultural ones. Alberta Environment and Parks (AEP), which is involved in the review process for such projects, describes solar site selection as “the first and most critical factor in preventing significant negative effects on wildlife.”

These significant negative effects may appear as losses to and the degradation of wildlife habitat. One risk specific to solar farms is what is known as the “lake effect.” Mistaking solar arrays for waterbodies, waterfowl will try to land on the arrays. Death or serious injury result. The lake effect has been documented at solar arrays in the United States. The seriousness of this effect in Alberta is unknown due to a lack of research.

Two solar projects south of Calgary – TC Energy’s Saddlebrook and Elemental Energy’s Foothills Solar – may illustrate the good and the bad associated with siting large-scale renewable energy projects.

The Alberta Utilities Commission (AUC) approved Saddlebrook last spring. Its 180,000 to 400,000 solar panels will generate 109 megawatts of electricity, enough to power thousands of homes.

Importantly, its location minimizes risks to wildlife and habitat. All of its arrays will be located on a brownfield site consisting of industrially zoned land. It therefore presents “a low risk to wildlife and wildlife habitat,” according to AEP.

What’s more, the project isn’t located close to significant waterbodies and the birds that congregate there. Frank Lake, 13 kilometres southeast of the project, is the nearest waterbody in the area.

Saddlebrook looks like a model for how green utility siting can be done to guarantee little to no collateral damage to wildlife and biodiversity.

Elemental Energy’s 150-megawatt Foothills project, on the other hand, may present a very serious threat to waterfowl. Foothills would be built close to the northeast shore of Frank Lake. Its proximity to the lake would make this otherwise green energy project an environmental threat.

Frank Lake is an ecological treasure. It is a Canadian member of the Important Bird Area (IBA) family – an international network of thousands of sites established to conserve birds, their habitats and biodiversity.

Frank Lake is globally, continentally, and nationally significant according to IBA criteria. Such significance led the conservation groups who steward the IBA program in Canada to call the lake “the most important wetland in southwestern Alberta for breeding water birds.”

Nearly half of the Foothills project falls within the Frank Lake IBA. An AEP report studying whether the project conforms to provincial wildlife directives for solar and wind developments neither endorses nor rejects Elemental Energy’s ambitions. But the report’s authors, both provincial wildlife biologists, wrote that they believe the project constitutes a significant risk to birds due to its location.

The AEP report found the project poses a high risk to birds generally and a moderate risk to breeding birds because a wide diversity of species at risk frequent the lake in large numbers and the overall migratory bird activity there is high.

Given these risks, green electricity from Foothills may come at a significant ecological cost. The Alberta Utilities Commission, the regulator that will decide this project’s fate, must recognize this.

The regulator should heed the counsel of the federal government’s Canadian Wildlife Service, which recommended siting the solar farm further away from Frank Lake because of what it said was the area’s “high bird activity, with numerous wild life features and high value bird habitat.”

Hopefully, provincial and national conservation organizations will mobilize to echo the recommendations of the CWS. So far there is no evidence that conservation groups are raising the alarm about Frank Lake. This is very troubling, since an AUC hearing into the Foothills project could start before the end of the year. There is no time to waste.

If Alberta is to be a worthy capital of Canada’s wind and solar production, the provincial government should ensure the initiatives propelling the province toward that status are balanced. They must be initiatives, as the Saddlebrook project is, that respect other fundamental ecological and social values. The Foothills solar project promises just the opposite.

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