County considering solar facility approval

·3 min read

Wheatland County is considering the approval of a new solar power facility located east of Strathmore.

The proposed development, called the East Strathmore Solar Project, is a 20.1 MW commercial solar facility that is planned to be composed of about 78,000 solar photovoltaic modules and about 10 inverter/transformer stations, with a footprint of about 49 hectares (120 acres).

The project is sited about 15 kilometres east of Strathmore, south of the Trans-Canada Highway and west of Range Road 233. Once constructed, the facility will provide power to Fortis Alberta’s electrical distribution system, via connection to the AltaLink substation located about 800 metres (m) east of the facility.

The East Strathmore Solar Project has already received approval from the Alberta Utilities Commission (AUC), the provincial utility regulator. Now the proponents need approval from the county, the first step of which is land use approval. This requires the passing of a bylaw to redesignate the 160-acre project area from agricultural general district, its current designation, to energy district, a use in the county’s land use bylaw specifically for commercial solar and wind developments. During the Wheatland County regular council meeting on Dec. 15, the first reading of a proposed land redesignation bylaw for the development was passed.

As per the county’s land use bylaws, energy districts require a 300 m setback from the edge of the redistricted area for a solar facility to an adjacent residence. In this case, this setback was net, with the closest residence about 290 m from the closest solar panel, as designed. However, according to a report by the county, the AUC granted a variance to this setback, decreasing it to 26 m on the property line.

Based on the Municipal Government Act, the AUC decision prevails over county land use bylaws, statutory plans and development authority, explained Meagan Williams, county planner, during the meeting.

However, when the developer submits their development permit application, they will still need to request a variance from the county, she said.

As part of the AUC approval process, an open house regarding the project was held on April 5, 2018 in Wheatland County. The proponents responded to residents’ concerns with proposed mitigation measures and met with residents in private meetings to further discuss their concerns.

Some of the residents expressed concern about the visual impact of the development. In response to this, the AUC is requiring the installation of a vegetative buffer (i.e., planted trees/shrubs) to act as a visual screen along the border of the site. The buffer is to be developed in consultation with a registered arborist and must be maintained throughout the lifespan of the project.

Construction of the solar facility is said to take about eight months, with 40 personal vehicles and three trucks accessing the site daily. The site is accessed from Range Road 233 from an existing oil and gas road. Once the facility is constructed, traffic will drop to one to two personal vehicles a week, according to the proponents.

According to the proponent, the project will create over 100 jobs during the peak of construction, 60 per cent of which will be sourced from Strathmore and Wheatland County. According to the AUC application, required positions include electricians, equipment operators, labourers, specialized trades, site managers and engineers. Additionally, the project will generate tax revenue for Wheatland County.

During the Dec. 15 meeting, a public hearing for the bylaw was also scheduled for Jan. 12, which will be held by conference call due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Following the public hearing, council may then consider adopting the bylaw by passing its second and third reading. Once the redesignation is approved, council will need to deliberate a development permit for the application.

Sean Feagan, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Strathmore Times