'The NIMBY thing is alive and well': Neighbours attack $50M solar farm expansion near Brooks

Western Canada's largest and first utility-scale solar project could soon get a whole lot bigger. 

The solar field just outside Brooks, Alta., was completed in 2017, marking a shift toward more renewable energy in the province.

The current site, which is impossible to miss alongside Highway 1, collects enough energy to power 3,000 homes, according to the company behind it. 

Now Vancouver-based Elemental Energy wants to add another 90,000 panels around the existing 50,000 at a cost of around $50 million.

The 28-megawatt addition would connect to a Fortis Alberta distribution system.

Kyle Bakx/CBC

'It would be in our front yard'

But people living near the site of the proposed Solar 2 project are worried about expanding the long rows of black panels much closer to some rural homes, impacting views and property values.

"We were against it right away. It would be in our front yard, in our living rooms," said Jay De Jong, who owns a honey farm right next to the proposed site in the Hajash subdivision and has lived there for 40 years.

"Every day, the view of the black panels — that's not a good view," said De Jong, anticipating how the scenery would change.

"The value of our properties are going down, and look at the beautiful view we have now."

De Jong says dozens of his neighbours also strongly oppose the plan and will be making their voices heard at an Alberta Utilities Commission (AUC) hearing planned for Dec. 3.

Company promises to address concerns

Elemental Energy says it's aware of the opposition from people who live in close proximity to the proposed site.

"People have concerns when significant projects come into their community and we try and address each and every one of those concerns as best we can," said Jamie Houssain, principal at Elemental Energy.

"There are some folks that have put up their hand and said there's some issues you need to understand before you guys move forwards," said Houssain.

Houssain says the company has been present and active in the community with site visits, open houses and information published in local newspapers on their expansion plans.

Elemental Energy

"These are sometimes issues that people feel strongly about but, broadly speaking, we feel like the project will be well supported," Houssain said. 

"Brooks and Newell County are great places for renewable energy in Alberta, and the entire community will benefit from it," he said.

Elemental says the original Solar 1 project resulted in $4.5 million in direct investment within the County of Newell.

Reeve says expansion is for the 'greater good'

"The NIMBY thing is alive and well everywhere in the world," said Molly Douglass, reeve of the County of Newell. 

"Everyone likes to have an economy that's diversified but most people would prefer that everything happens a long way from them, which is understandable," she said.

"Our council perspective has been we need economic diversification. This year, in particular, our oil and gas business in the traditional energy field has really been reduced," said Douglass.

"There are lots of tough decisions that councils have to make," she said. "The greater good is always what we're after."

The AUC hearing to review applications and submissions takes place Dec. 3-6 at the Heritage Inn & Suites in Brooks.

Residents will get the chance to express their views to a commission panel.

To have a say in the project, residents must file a written statement through the AUC website prior to the hearing. 

If the project is approved, construction would start within the next two years, according to the company.