Pilot project aims to turn orphan oil well sites into solar project

A team of oil industry and renewable energy leaders has a sunny proposal for abandoned oil and gas leases.

The RenuWell Project has had a pilot approved to convert a few sites in the Municipal District of Taber to small scale solar arrays.

Keith Hirsche, the head of the RenuWell Project, says they're looking at taking up between two to four orphaned well leases to start with.

"The idea is to help accelerate and reduce the cost of abandonment in the area … and also to decrease some of the energy costs for irrigation farmers," Hirsche said.

Abandoned oil wells pose serious environmental and financial headaches for the farmers who have them on their lands — and it has left Albertans with major environmental liabilities that could cost the province tens of billions of dollars to clean up.

As of July, Alberta had more than 90,000 inactive wells, in addition to 73,000 abandoned wells that have been dismantled but not fully reclaimed, and as of August, the Oil Well Association has an inventory of 2959 orphan wells in the province for abandonment along with 3212 orphan sites for reclamation.

To transform an old oil well site to a solar operation isn't too different from a standard solar project, Hirsche says, but it saves a bit of land, since solar projects take up a lot of space, he explained.

"The problem with that is, you're taking land from farming and other purposes," he said. By using the land with infrastructure already in place, like roads and power lines, it can also help save time and money for both energy industries involved.

Not 'another dumping ground'

The project doesn't remove the obligation for the oil wells to be cleaned up.

Hirsche says by using the sites for solar energy projects, it allows for productive use of the land while the long-term process of remediation occurs.

"It's really important to make sure this isn't another dumping ground for oil and gas liabilities," Hirsche said.

The best site locations are generally located on farmlands, where farmers can buy the power directly for their irrigation systems, Hirsche said.

According to a news release from RenuWells, the solar projects will generate 2,900 MWh and over $224,000 in electricity sales per year, with 1,560 tCO2e savings in GHG emissions. The projects will also create an ongoing property tax revenue for the Municipal District of Taber.

If around 10 per cent of abandoned wells around the province is utilized for solar projects, it could possibly meet the land resource requirements for 6,200 MW of solar energy development, Hirsche says.

A nonprofit organization, Iron & Earth, is partnering with Medicine Hat College to develop a five-day skill program for workers to learn the basics of solar before working on transforming the well sites, the release says.

IRRICAN (the irrigation canal power co-operative owned by St. Mary River, Taber, and Raymond Irrigation Districts) is contributing $1.5 million, and the power co-operative will be the owner and operator of the solar generation projects.

Canadian Solar Inc. and SkyFire Energy Inc. will be coordinating the installations, with Canadian Solar providing up to $700,000 in in-kind funding.

The hope is to start the builds of the projects by 2021.

"We're very excited about the potential of this project for our province, and our country," Hirsche said.