WESTLOCK – If and when the application by Acestes Power ULC to build a 24-megawatt (MW) solar power farm two kilometres north of the Town of Westlock appears in front of the Alberta Utilities Commission (AUC) in April, Westlock County may participate, although it has yet to formally declare whether it’s for, against, or neutral on the project.
Following a five-minute presentation at the March 14 council meeting by CAO Tony Kulbisky detailing the project, councillors voted 6-0 (Coun. Sherri Provencal was absent) to accept his report as information.
It’s now expected that at the county’s March 28 meeting, councillors will take a public stance on the project and may then direct administration to submit a formal letter of intent to participate in the AUC hearing and note any issues it has — in his briefing to council, Kulbisky said issues could range from landscaping, to road use, the possibility of an alternate location within the county and site reclamation.
Currently slated to be built at NW and SW 17-60-26 W4M and open by the winter of 2024, the plant is touted to produce up to 24 MWs of power into the local electric distribution grid and will include approximately 55,000 modules installed on a single-axis tracking system — the system will gather (DC) power from the solar panels and convert it to alternating current (AC) power which will be sent to a transformer to increase the voltage to 25 kilovolts (kV) for delivery to the local electricity grid.
“The way the AUC process works is that if council wants to participate, once we know that the (company’s) application has been submitted to AUC, that’s our trigger for the letter of intent to be sent that we want to participate in the process and then we can work on a formal submission,” Kulbisky explained.
“Now, it’s early days and we don’t have to do it today. But we will be collecting more information from other entities and then we’ll bring this matter back to council for the March 28 meeting for further discussion and then some direction as far as what council wishes to do with this.”
Around 50 residents participated in a March 8 open house in Westlock by the company as part of the participant-involvement program included under the AUC’s Rule 007 approval process.
That open house was covered in the March 14 edition of Town & Country This Week and some of the feedback from residents centered over its location on prime agricultural land, its impact on surrounding farmland and the glare from the panels.
Kulbisky said although most of the feedback he’s gotten on the project has been positive, he’s also heard those same concerns and noted that many he talked to weren’t aware that it will be the AUC, not the county, that will decide if the project goes forward — the Municipal Government Act contains provisions that allow for projects like this to proceed without municipal approval.
“So, really the only thing we can do is provide a position paper to the AUC with the concerns that have been raised by council and by residents and then leave it to the AUC to make a decision, at least hearing those concerns,” Kulbisky noted. “But ultimately, the decision lies with the AUC, not with the county.”
According to an eight-page, company-produced newsletter, the project will provide enough electricity to power approximately 7,000 homes yearly, while Clyde Carr, managing consultant with Acestes Power, said at the March 8 meeting that most complaints he heard that night were about the fact it’s on prime agricultural land.
Acestes Power is a small, Alberta-based company first established in 2016 and has created several projects in southern Alberta that are currently up and running and producing power. One south of the Town of Vulcan (22 megawatts) and two others in Lethbridge County, the Monarch project and the Coaldale project, are also situated on prime agricultural land, close to a substation and are similar in size to the proposed Westlock project.
“Those three projects have been up and running since summer and fall 2022,” he said, noting the company “no longer has ownership in those projects” and they are under a company called Concord Green Energy.
Carr noted the company did look at other areas in the region, including land near Clyde, but found that the substation there “just didn’t have the capacity, but this substation (north of Westlock) has the capacity” — Kulbisky’s briefing notes only two substations exist within the county. Carr also said that the project’s north-west quarter section of land has been under a “long-term land lease with the landowner” since last year.
“There’s definitely a lot of hurdles to clear. AUC approval is a very big one and we hope to be submitting that application sometime in the next few months,” said Carr March 8. “We believe it’s an excellent site, we did our homework before we landed on this site and we really hope that it gets approved.”
According to the newsletter, a glare assessment at nearby residences, and along local roads and railways, has been done and a full report will be included in the application to the AUC. In addition, “comprehensive environmental studies” including wildlife studies, vegetation studies, wetlands delineation and habitat mapping have been completed and the results and potential mitigation were submitted to Alberta Environment and Protected Areas (AEPE) in February 2023 — once AEPA reviews the information they will issue a Renewable Energy Wildlife Referral Report for the project.
The newsletter notes the “solar plant will provide ongoing tax revenue benefits to Westlock County” over its lifespan and “provide a local source of power that is clean and renewable.”
The newsletter also notes that construction will require many skills and trades and it’s expected they’ll need over 100 workers and there will also be “ongoing job opportunities during the operational life of the plant.”