Cleanup of wind and solar sites won't land at Alberta farmers' feet

Provincial government takes aim at farmers' concerns they could get stuck with cleanup bill for renewable energy projects.

New rules say renewable energy operators will have duty to reclaim land after they finish using it

The Alberta government has released new rules that state the operators of renewable energy projects will be ultimately responsible for cleaning them up. And it has set standards for doing that work. (Reuters)

With a growing number of wind and solar developments studding Alberta's landscape, the province has enshrined new rules that ensure operators — not landowners — are ultimately responsible for cleaning them up. 

The province has had renewable energy development for over two decades, but landowner advocates have more recently grumbled about insufficient rules. For one, farmers and landowners wanted to make sure their property is returned to its prior state when renewable facilities expired.

The oil and gas industry has had such regulation for years.

Now, Alberta Environment has issued rules that explicitly state operators have a duty to conserve and reclaim the land after they have finished using it. It also sets standards for the industry to follow during the process — standards that will have to be met before the province could certify that it was done properly.

Environment Minister Shannon Phillips said the rules fill a legislative gap that stretches back more than 20 years.
"We are ensuring Albertans can feel confident in entering renewable energy agreements on their land," said Environment Minister Shannon Phillips. (Mike Symington/CBC)

"As hundreds of millions in new investments flow into Alberta's renewable energy industry, we are ensuring Albertans can feel confident in entering renewable energy agreements on their land," Phillips said in an email statement.

The new directive stops short of creating an "orphan" fund for renewable projects — similar to the one for oil and gas wells — that will pay to clean up renewable energy sites if a company goes bankrupt.

But Daryl Bennett, a director with Action Surface Rights Association in southern Alberta, still welcomed the government's initiative.

"It's quite an improvement," said Bennett. "This just puts some standards in place so all the companies are expected to reclaim in a similar fashion."

Alberta is experiencing a renewable energy boom as the province wants to add up to 5,000 megawatts of renewable energy through private sector investment of about $10 billion by 2030. The province has become one of the hottest markets for the renewable energy sector in Canada.

But the growth also spurred farmers and landowners to raise their concerns, leading the government to host a series of feedback sessions this spring and summer. 

The meetings resulted in a 50-page directive from Alberta Environment that sets out planning requirements for everything from weed management to soil mapping at project sites. Of note, it outlines an operator's "obligation" to reclaim specified land to equivalent land capability once they are finished using it.
Alberta is experiencing a renewable energy boom as the province wants to add up to 5,000 MW of renewable energy through private sector investment of about $10 billion by 2030. (CBC)

Alberta Environmental officials say the directive still provides landowners with the flexibility to enter into agreements with private companies to mutual benefit, including ensuring proper financial security.

The new rules were published last month.

In Alberta, landowners are not obligated to accept a wind, solar or geothermal project on their land. Contracts are negotiated bilaterally between the landowner and the renewable energy developer.

Bennett participated in the discussions with government this year. He said some landowners signed contracts with companies they simply shouldn't have, but this new directive codifies the expectations for land reclamation.

For one, Bennett says it sets minimum depth levels to remove concrete bases, which could have significant, long-term impacts on the land if done poorly.

"I currently have some windmills going into hearings and I'll be asking the [Alberta Utilities Commission] to consider some of the things that are in that document even though it hasn't come into full force in effect yet," Bennett said.

The directive takes full effect in January, 2020.
A spokesman for the wind power industry said the sector was supportive of the initiative overall. (The Canadian Press)

Some landowners had hoped the province would create an "orphan" fund that would pay to clean up renewable energy sites if a company goes bankrupt.

The new directive doesn't do that, but it's becoming more common in contracts between landowners and operators for the company to agree to post some kind of financial security.

A representative of the wind power industry said the sector was supportive of the initiative overall.

Evan Wilson, spokesman for the Canada Wind Energy Association (CanWEA), said the government's initiative will introduce some specific costs to the pre-construction, construction and operations cycle of a project. But he said the directive offers clarity to all sides.

"Not only does it provide predictability for our members," Wilson said, "but it's our expectation that it will provide comfort for landowners and communities to know that there is a standard that industry can point to, that government can point to, that will allow landowners to know what is being done on their land at the end of life of the project."