You may have seen that the solar farm project adjacent to the E.L. Smith Water Treatment Plant was approved by City Council this week. I voted in favour of this proposal.
This was not an easy decision for me, nor was it for my Council colleagues; it is no wonder it came down to a 7-6 vote. I would like to explain here the reasoning behind my decision to support this rezoning application.
At face value, any proposal to industrialize any portion of the river valley should give us all pause. As a serving board member of River Valley Alliance and a lifelong user of the river valley, the urgency of preserving our City's greatest natural asset is not lost on me. I do think, though, that it is really important to put this project into full perspective, as this is a very unique and complex situation.
Much of the correspondence I have received on this project has offered comments like this: I support solar projects generally, but why here? Why does it have to be in the river valley, rather than on a brownfield nearby? These are good and important questions, and many people came to public hearing with aspirational ideas of what other projects could look like in other areas of the region, which I would support — I would like to see more renewable energy project proposals coming forward like those that were being described. The reality is that those projects are still hypothetical, and in my time on Council this is the only major renewable energy project we have been approached with. That is not a coincidence. Energy projects, whether renewable or otherwise, are really hard to advance, and if we are serious about the urgency of our climate goals as a city, we need to be able to talk about trade-offs.
So what is the tradeoff here?
First it must be noted that Council did not vote to rezone parkland. The site we are talking about is privately owned by EPCOR and adjacent to an existing industrial site (the E.L. Smith Water Treatment Plant). Of the 18,000 acres of river valley land in Edmonton, this is 99 acres of cleared land that is previously disturbed, has water pipes running underneath it, is currently fenced off, and has already been designated for future expansion of the existing water treatment plant. It is anticipated that, based on our city’s current growth trajectory, this water treatment plant expansion will be required within about 30 years. In the meantime EPCOR proposed a temporary renewable energy project that would provide a local source of power to the water treatment plant, removing its reliance on the energy grid, which is currently powered primarily by non-renewable sources. I view this as a relatively low impact, contextually appropriate interim use of parcelled-off land that would otherwise lay dormant.
This is a use that aligns with the climate emergency declared by this City Council last year, and supports our city's energy resilience. Beyond that, only 51 acres of the land in question will be used for the solar farm project — reduced from 62 acres at the behest of Council — and EPCOR has committed to renaturalizing the remaining 48 acres of land for enhanced wildlife and trail connectivity. Furthermore, less than one acre of that land will actually see meaningful infrastructure that will have a real land impact.
I know many have come forward with practical questions about the merits of the project, questioning the reliability of the technology, the amount of expected sun exposure, and so on. I want to be clear that it is not Edmonton City Council’s role to assess whether this is a good or a bad solar project. There is an extensive, years-long regulatory process that EPCOR as the proponent had to undertake to get to this point with Utility Committee and then with Alberta Utility Commission, a provincial body. Part of that process involved demonstrating the viability of this project, which they did — in other words, if this were not a viable project, it never would have come before Council in the first place.
The decision before Council on Monday was a land use decision, and to my mind, the actual tradeoff before us was whether we would allow this parcel of land to be used for this function, or whether we would leave a bare, fenced-off parcel of land to lay dormant for 30 years until it is used for expansion of our water treatment facilities. Again, this is not a question of “parkland or solar farm”, because this is not parkland. It is EPCOR-owned land, already designated for future water treatment expansion.
Many have also raised concerns that this would set a precedent for future industrialization of our Ribbon of Green. I want to state in the strongest terms that this decision does NOT set a precedent. Legal precedent is not a factor in land use decisions by Edmonton City Council, and every new rezoning application is evaluated on its own merits. Full stop.
I would like now to talk about some of the ancillary benefits to Edmontonians. In terms of energy resilience, as previously stated, the E.L. Smith Water Treatment Plant will derive the majority of its energy consumption from this solar farm, making it resilient to rising electricity grid pressures like we saw last winter.
I think it is also important to step back and reiterate that this City Council declared a climate emergency last year. In the Energy Transition Strategy, Edmonton City Council set a benchmark goal for local energy creation at 10%. We committed to “accelerating the greening of Alberta’s electricity grid,” and we endorsed programs that promote energy efficiency in industrial activities. It is self-evident that this project aligns with all of these goals. We cannot hide from the fact that rejecting renewable energy projects sets us back. That does not mean that all renewable energy projects have equal or unassailable merit. But in my view it would be disingenuous to set goals, only to then outright reject proposals that help us meet those goals, without engaging in earnest with those proposals.
Another benefit that I mentioned previously is the proponent’s commitment to revegetation of approximately half of the land that Council voted to rezone — 48 acres of the total 99 acre land parcel. I appreciate and share the concerns raised by those who worry about the ecological impacts of any river valley development — this is something I speak about regularly with my colleagues on the River Valley Alliance board. I have reviewed the Environmental Impact Assessment completed for this project many times, both on Utility Committee and again through the recent public hearing process, and in this specific case I feel that these concerns have been reasonably satisfied. The amended project plan will see an additional 125 metres of space along the river bank renaturalized to allow for wildlife to pass through the area unencumbered. When viewed in the context of the state of the existing site, moving forward with this rezoning will facilitate more immediate naturalization of the river valley than if Council had rejected the application.
Finally, I would like to speak to the reason that this project is before us this year, rather than last year. In July 2019, when Council was first scheduled to hear arguments, Enoch Cree Nation withdrew their support for the solar farm, citing emerging information that the site may have been used for ceremonial purposes. In response to this withdrawal, Council voted to send the project back so that EPCOR could work with Enoch Cree Nation to evaluate the historical significance of the land and to engage in archeological activities collaboratively. This culminated in a memorandum of understanding between EPCOR and Enoch Cree Nation, signed on September 1st. Enoch Cree Nation now supports the project, and their support was received through the public hearing process.
In closing, I want to say that I’ve heard and appreciated the comments I have received from all of you, whether privately or through the public hearing process. Given the unique nature of this rezoning application, and for all the specific reasons listed above, I felt that EPCOR, as the proponent, made a reasonable case for a land-use change that is contextually appropriate. I see a project that will provide value to Edmontonians, where the land impact is minimal. It will help us combat climate change, create jobs during an economic downturn, give us greater energy resilience, allow us to derive use out of land that is currently dormant, and send a signal to energy producers that renewable projects can be viable in the Edmonton region. If we are serious about our climate change goals we must act quickly, and I feel we are now one step closer to meeting those goals.
I love the river valley, I value the quality of life it gives us, and this was a profoundly complex decision that took years to come to. I do not anticipate that, if you were opposed to the project before, this will have changed your mind. My hope, rather, is that it helps to illustrate the magnitude of that complexity. As some of my colleagues have said, this was a decision that every single member of council agonized over, but now that it is done, and let me be clear — rezoning decisions are final — we need to focus on ensuring that the proponent holds up their end of the bargain. This will ensure that the promises made during the public hearing truly do benefit the residents of Edmonton.