Elise Stolte: Edmonton is greatest served with a transparent no to photo voltaic parks within the river valley

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Elise Stolte A rendering of the planned solar park in the EL Smith water treatment center.  This view is looking west across the river from a recreational trail. A rendering of the planned solar park in the EL Smith water treatment center. This view is looking west across the river from a recreational trail. Photo supplied by Epcor

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There is a simple answer to Epcor’s suggestion to cover a large portion of a river basin with solar panels: No.

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That should have been the Council’s answer this week; it could still arrive.

Epcor has worked hard to showcase the green aspects of it – testing new batteries, creating a demonstration site for the public, and planting new native seeds. But in the end, green energy can be produced anywhere. Solar panels do not belong in a river valley.

The sooner Epcor accepts this, the sooner it can fulfill its green energy commitment with a better plan. It has already wasted more than two years going this route.

But that’s not just my opinion.

In 2017, the Alberta government published the Wildlife Directive for Alberta Solar Energy Projects. Provincial biologists conducted an extensive literature review of the risks to wildlife – including habitat loss and birds killed each year if they mistook the reflective panels for a lake. They are injured or stranded as a result of the collision, cannot take off without a clear runway and fall prey to coyotes and other predators on the ground.

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The conclusion was that solar parks are a good choice for agricultural land or contaminated / previously industrialized sites, but only if removed from wetlands, rivers or lakes. The risks are too great, the habitat too valuable.

This means that solar parks are now banned in river valleys and have to be set back 100 meters, even from the crest, the point where flat table land curves to the valley plains below. In addition, they must be placed in such a way that the impact is minimized in areas designated as “key zones for wildlife biodiversity”.

But here’s the strange thing. Although Edmonton’s North Saskatchewan River Valley is marked on provincial maps as an Important Wildlife Biodiversity Zone, the 2017 guideline was never applied.

Alberta Environment and Parks officials ruled that this project was exempt due to the city limits. It is as if the river and the important biodiversity zone only exist “somehow”.

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That is why the city council decides.

The city council asked Epcor, a 100 percent city-owned company, to come up with a green energy plan a few years ago. It put the 24 hectare solar park on the scene in June 2017. The project would use the land Epcor already owns adjacent to the EL Smith Water Treatment Plant on the southwestern edge of the city, which will reduce electricity consumption from the grid by 10 percent.

It costs $ 5 million more to build there than wind energy elsewhere, but would save $ 18 million compared to buying land for an off-site solar farm. Because the panels would be plugged directly into the facility, Epcor would not pay transmission fees or taxes on the electricity, buy additional land, or deal with provincial tariffs for selling electricity to the grid.

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Epcor says it will address wildlife concerns by leaving a 100-meter corridor between the river and the solar farm. But it hasn’t measured the amount of wildlife activity on site yet. She doesn’t know whether the 100 meter buffer is enough.

City officials say they will need these studies before planning permission is granted, which is the next step after council approval, and may call for other changes to reduce the impact.

A diagram of the planned solar park next to the EL Smith Water Treatment Plant. A diagram of the planned solar park next to the EL Smith Water Treatment Plant. Photo by Epcor

The council heard testimony for and against the solar park for two days this week. They sent it back on Wednesday for two reasons. First, to better understand Enoch Cree Nation’s concern about the archaeological finds. Second, to get the administration to justify why the solar park needs to be here.

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That has always been at the heart of the problem, says Coun. Ben Henderson, who proposed the second part of the proposal. Is the project really unsustainable if the Council asks Epcor to take it elsewhere? he said. “It’s difficult. I’m still really torn.”

This is a complicated project and I understand why many on the council love it. They would love to finally celebrate a large solar system.

But it’s not that this is the only solar project Edmonton is working on. There is money in the budget for energy efficiency upgrades and solar systems in the City of Edmonton buildings.

The council should give Epcor another opportunity to operate on-site solar energy to meet its green energy commitment.

A green electron somewhere on the grid has the same impact on climate change. So why not postpone Epcor’s commitment to helping a library, leisure center, or other public building help cut emissions?

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It is important to respond to climate change – to reduce greenhouse gas emissions quickly and limit the global increase. But it’s just as important to accept the inevitable: the climate is already changing; Species in our garden are faced with stress and loss of habitat. This makes the habitat in local wildlife corridors and river valleys more important than ever.

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