Edmontonians worry proposed EPCOR solar farm could damage river valley

Edmontonians who live near the site of a proposed solar farm say it’s a good project in a bad location.

EPCOR is proposing the development of a solar farm in Edmonton’s river valley that would power a west end water treatment facility.

The development could see the addition of up to 45,000 solar panels south of the E.L. Smith Water Treatment Plant at 169th Street and 35th Avenue.

The property is located at 3900 E.L. Smith Road NW on the banks of the North Saskatchewan River, near the Cameron Heights neighbourhood.

Community members shared their feedback at an open house regarding the rezoning of the land Tuesday at Good Shepherd Elementary School.

The solar farm would sit beside the E.L. Smith Water Treatment Plant. (EPCOR)

“It’s a great project,” said Charles Richmond, the Sierra Club of Canada’s urban issues coordinator. “It’s just the wrong place.”

Richmond commended EPCOR’s effort to reduce its carbon footprint, but said the Sierra Club is worried the project will disrupt the ecology of the river valley.

“It takes away real estate and the real estate doesn’t come back,” he said.

EPCOR owns the river valley land next to the water treatment facility, where the farm would sit.  Before construction can begin, the project has to be approved by the city and the Alberta Utilities Commission.

It would also require an amendment to a bylaw that restricts construction in the river valley unless it’s essential.

“Why is it essential to put a solar farm immediately adjacent to where the power’s being used?” Richmond said.

“It chips away at the precedent of a bylaw.”

‘What we’ve seen over decades now is a gradual incursion into the river valley.’ – Guy Swinnerton, Professor Emeritus of Parks and Protected Areas

Norlene and Guy Swinnerton also attended Tuesday’s open house, and echoed Richmond’s concerns.

“Anybody sensible” would support the use of solar energy — but it shouldn’t threaten the ecological integrity of the natural environment, said Guy Swinnerton, a University of Alberta professor emeritus of physical education and recreation, with 40 years of academic experience in parks and protected areas.

He said the farm would disrupt the connectivity of the river valley, as the project site acts as a crucial linkage point. Some trees scattered around the property would also have to be removed to make room for the panels.

“What we’ve seen over decades now is a gradual incursion into the river valley by incremental growth [and] development, whether it’s industrial or otherwise,” he said.

“And at some point, we’ve got to step back and look at it from a cumulative standpoint.”

Hopes for an alternative location

The Swinnertons have been living near the river valley for 40 years, and want to see the panels moved elsewhere.

EPCOR solar

Some Edmontonians are worried EPCOR’s proposed solar farm will change the river valley. (EPCOR)

“A solar field can be located anywhere. It can be on our rooftops and it can feed into the grid from anywhere,” Norlene Swinnerton said. “But this is a convenient place for [EPCOR] to have it because it’s land that they control. It’s very economical for them.”

Craig Bonneville, EPCOR’S director of water treatment, said it’s unlikely the panels will be proposed at a different location.

“We explored a number of options with the project,” Bonneville said. “And really, this is the only option that serves our purpose of supplying green energy directly to the water treatment plant in an economically feasible way.”

The cost-estimate for the farm is $32 million. Bonneville said people’s monthly utility bills will increase by fewer than 10 cents.

Major energy savings

Bonneville said he has received some positive feedback about the project, but is aware of the environmental concerns.

“We’ve been able to mitigate all the risks and impacts on things like wildlife movement and vegetation and so on in that area, so it really has no impact on some of the things that folks are concerned about,” he said.

The distance between the river and the 62-acre project site would be 100 metres, allowing wildlife to move freely through the area, Bonneville said.

EPCOR solar

The water treatment facility is surrounded by a barbed-wire fence. EPCOR’s director of water treatment, Craig Bonneville, says a 100-metre corridor between the river and project site would allow for the free movement of wildlife. (EPCOR)

The project would have a positive environmental impact, said Bonneville. The water treatment facility’s need for non-renewable energy would be dramatically reduced, he said. 

The solar farm could generate 20,000 megawatts of energy yearly, which is equivalent to powering more than 2,800 Alberta homes for a year.

An exciting urban development

Ward 5 City Councillor Sarah Hamilton said it’s exciting to see a renewable energy project proposed in the city.

“It’s an interesting project because we haven’t seen an investment in renewables of this scale in metropolitan Edmonton,” Hamilton said.

Hamilton said she has heard the concerns of Edmontonians who are “proud and protective of their river valley.”

She said nearby residents don’t need to worry about the project triggering other developments in the area.

“This is not opening the floodgates, so to speak. That land is already titled to EPCOR, and I don’t believe that there’s any comparable property along the entire river valley parks system,” she said.

If approved, the project could be completed by late 2019.

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