Community-based project lost in the shuffle over solar power

Government inaction jeopardizes proposed community solar farm that backers hoped would be a model for rural Alberta

It only takes a cursory glance at the headlines to recognize that a solar energy boom is coming to Alberta.

Last year, the province set a target of having 30 per cent renewable energy by 2030 — but it remains to be seen whether farmers and rural communities will be able to ride this coming wave.

Although the Green Acres Hutterite colony east of Calgary has built a two-megawatt, $5-million solar array, another major project is in a holding pattern.

Jordan Webber.
photo: Supplied

“We waited through 2016 after announcement after announcement was made and significant commitments were made to both the wind and solar fields — all of which specifically excluded us,” said Jordan Webber, economic development officer for Starland County.

The central Alberta county is keen to build a 12-acre solar farm capable of generating one to two megawatts of energy. The project, dubbed the Alberta Solar Co-op, has been left in limbo because the province has yet to determine what price will be paid for solar-generated power, hasn’t laid out fundraising rules (which Starland needs to fund its co-op), and has been initially focused on larger projects.

“(The provincial government’s) bidding process for minimum five-megawatt projects is somewhere around a $12-million to $15-million investment,” said Webber. “These community-installed projects are more around a $5-million investment, so it kind of excludes us right from the start.”

Although Starland County has been told by the provincial government that policies allowing their category of solar farm to move forward will be in place this year, Webber is concerned that existing infrastructure — specifically substations — will be consumed by larger projects before they even have a chance to start building.

“These systems have to be installed at substations and there’s a limited amount of substations,” he said. “For example, in our county there’s two and there have been multiple bids by the large installers on each of them. So there likely won’t be room for our project once all is said and done.”

That could be a killer blow.

“It’s very possible that the vast majority of the market availability will be gone by the time community scale has a policy framework to use,” he said. “The truth is the government, in this regard specifically, has really erred.”

It would be a major disappointment for the 3,500-resident county, which had developed a number of small-scale solar pro-jects in the past decades. When it announced its plans for a solar farm last year, a number of solar experts, developers, and renewable energy advocates joined the co-op, with the idea that it could be a template for community-funded solar arrays.

In spite of the lack of progress, Webber has chosen to remain optimistic.

“We’re trying to hold our key position for our specific project to still make that a reality,” he said. “We are following the process along and are advocating very strongly for what community projects need to be competitive. We expect the government will create that framework in 2017 as it has suggested.”

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