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TransAlta scraps wind farm project as energy market changes loom for Alberta

TransAlta, one of Alberta’s largest power generators, has cancelled a proposed wind farm development and is putting a hold on three other power projects, citing provincial rule changes and a lack of certainty in the market.

In February, Alberta’s government announced new rules on the development of renewable power in the province. They imposed a new 35-kilometre buffer zone around areas deemed “pristine viewscapes.”

Calgary-based TransAlta said those rules, coupled with a lack of clarity around the future of renewable energy in Alberta, led to the decision to permanently scrap the Riplinger wind project near Cardston, Alta. 

The company began looking into the 300-megawatt wind farm in 2020, and has done studies to assess its environmental impact. It was expected to come online in 2027.

“As we take stock of the government of Alberta’s regulatory announcements, we reassessed our own growth plans in the province,” said TransAlta CEO John Kousinioris during a first-quarter results call on Friday.

Some local residents who live near Waterton, Alta., are celebrating the decision. Bed and breakfast owner Angela Tabak, with the Riplinger Wind Concerned Citizens, says fighting against the project became a full-time job.

“We’ve spent the last year contacting every government official that we can get our hands on,” she told CBC News in late March. “We have sat in the premier’s office with her and a number of folks from different ministries. We have sat with the environment minister and laid out our case.”

Concerns about tourism, birds

She thinks the project would affect tourism.

The no-go zone rule followed a seven-month moratorium on renewable energy approvals after the government decided the industry was growing too quickly, threatening agriculture and marring Alberta’s landscape.

A map released in March shows that the buffer zone includes the entire length of the Rocky Mountains, stretching as far east as Calgary and south to the U.S. border. Kousinioris says TransAlta’s Riplinger project would have been on the edge of an exclusion zone.

“I really believe it was probably this project that finally triggered that moratorium when it was so obvious that things were completely out of control,” said Tabak.

Her group also had concerns about the impact on birds fatally caught up in the turbine blades, and other animals in the rich biodiverse landscape of the area — which UNESCO designated a World Heritage Site in 1995.

The sun warms up a mountain landscape near Waterton as green grasses roll into the mountains.
The view from Angela Tabak’s bed and breakfast, taken from Highway 800. She says this view of the gateway to Waterton, Alta., would have been full of turbines. (Angela Tabak/Riplinger Wind Concerned Citizens)

She says she’s not against renewables, and just put $40,000 worth of solar panels on her property.

Jason Wang, an analyst with the clean energy think-tank Pembina Institute, says 57 projects worth $14 billion are affected by visual impact zones or the agricultural land-class restrictions released by the government.

He said, despite the impacts on birds, which is a concern, human-caused climate change from burning fossil fuels is expected to have a devastating effect on all wildlife on the planet. Some experts predict a mass extinction of animals is already underway.

He says pivoting to renewable energy should be our main priority, and now Alberta might lose out on investments — especially in areas of the province that see a lot of wind, like near the mountains.

“Many of these folks are the ones that, you know, have already said they might be looking at other jurisdictions,” said Wang about some renewable companies.

The moratorium’s lasting impact

Wang says key details for many projects in limbo still haven’t been released. He says that essentially means the moratorium recently lifted is still in effect, and he worries about the impact on First Nations who want take control of their power needs.

Alberta’s Ministry of Affordability and Utilities says “viewscape” rules were developed based off stakeholder feedback and how other jurisdictions — such as B.C., California and the U.K. — have approached the issue.

A spokesperson for the ministry said Pembina’s estimates are “are solely speculation,” and “not accurate nor reflective of the number of projects before the AUC nor the amount of investment impacted.” They also don’t affect projects currently operating in the area, as there are hundreds of wind turbines dotting the horizon near Pincher Creek, Alta.

A map of Alberta, showing zones prohibited for renewable power development.
The province released a map in March, defining which parts of the province are to be off-limits to wind and solar power. (Government of Alberta)

“These new rules apply to all new projects undergoing the approvals process with the Alberta Utilities Commission (AUC) as of March 1. They are not retroactive, and therefore do not apply to existing projects,” said Minister Nathan Neudorf in an emailed statement to CBC News. 

“The AUC has already moved forward with issuing new decisions on project applications, with the vast majority being approvals. We recognize that First Nations set their own land-use policies with the federal government for reserve lands, and our enhanced land-use rules are not designed to apply to those areas.”

When asked why other industries, such as the widespread logging proposed for West Bragg Creek that locals think will have an impact on tourism and the majestic views, are not affected by the new rules, the ministry said that falls outside of its purview, and questions would have to be directed to the government’s Environment, Forestry and Energy departments.

3 other TransAlta projects on hold

TransAlta’s Kousinioris said the province’s looming market redesign has forced the company to reconsider other plans as well.

The company has put on hold the 180-megawatt WaterCharger battery storage facility near Cochrane, the 100-megawatt Tempest wind project south of Lethbridge, and the 44-megawatt Pinnacle generator west of Edmonton.

“These projects all have varying degrees of merchant market exposure and have been put on hold until we receive sufficient clarity regarding the future market structure and the impact of changing frameworks on resulting market prices,” said Kousinioris.

A building is pictured.
Calgary-based TransAlta says it will shelve the proposed Riplinger wind farm project. (Larry MacDougal/The Canadian Press)

According to Kousinioris, two of the developments put on hold were quite novel projects.

WaterCharger, the largest of the halted projects, is a 180-megawatt battery storage project that would sit on roughly nine acres of land 18 kilometres west of Cochrane. It was expected to be completed this year.

The facility, according to TransAlta, is designed to be charged by electricity produced by the existing Ghost hydroelectric plant when demand is lower. 

During times of higher demand, power from the new facility would be discharged to support the electric grid.

Pinnacle, a 44-megawatt thermal project in Parkland County, Alta., was expected to generate around 60,000 megawatt-hours of electricity by 2025 — its expected first year of operation before being placed on hold. 

“We’re very careful with our shareholders’ money, and we’re not going to invest in these kinds of projects unless we have a good level of comfort that our return expectations are going to be met,” Kousinioris said.

Tempest is another wind farm that TransAlta started developing in 2006. It’s a 99-megawatt project located approximately 15 kilometres east of Stirling, Alta., in Warner County.

“The other projects are on hold, they’re not cancelled,” Kousinioris said, adding that his team is working to preserve them and will move them forward once they get the clarity they need.

“There are things that that could be resurrected and investments that could be made there.”

This article is from from cbc.ca (CBC NEWS CANADA)

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