Why a solar energy company has its eye on a chunk of farmland in Brooks

A quarter section (65 hectares) of farmland along the edge of Brooks, Alta., is being eyed for a new solar farm project — one of an increasing number dotting Alberta's landscape.

PACE Canada LP has made its case to Brooks council, public consultations underway

A row of houses overlooks an empty, snow-covered field.
The proposed solar farm would be built on this empty patch of land in the northwestern corner of Brooks, Alta. (Submitted by John Petrie)

A quarter section (65 hectares) of farmland along the edge of Brooks, Alta., is being eyed for a new solar farm project — one of an increasing number dotting Alberta's landscape.

The field of panels would be adjacent to some residential home in the northwestern part of the city, which is about 190 kilometres east of Calgary. 

Brooks Mayor John Petrie says city council has just started discussions with PACE Canada LP, the company behind the project, but they've already heard concerns from some residents.

"I think the general comment at this point is they don't want the solar farm within city limits," he said.

It's a conversation many municipalities and counties are going through, as solar projects become all the more common around the province

There are 29 solar projects operational in Alberta, with an additional 17 under construction, 16 approved and 76 announced, according to the Alberta Electric System Operator. 

PACE Canada LP has about 10 Alberta projects in the works, said Claude Mindorff, director of development with the company, citing the province's unregulated market and plentiful sunshine as motivators for investment.

"It's kind of like the late '70s in the oilpatch where you couldn't go to a small community and rent a hotel room. Same thing's going on in Brooks right now with all the projects from Jenner all the way down through Vauxhall," he said in an interview on the Calgary Eyeopener.

Increasing renewable energy is also on the mind of the provincial government, which has pledged to reach 30 per cent renewable energy by 2030.

Currently, renewables account for 31 per cent of installed grid capacity in Alberta, but the amount of renewable power supplied to the grid is closer to 13 per cent. That's because sources like solar and wind don't provide continuous power.

"We are going to need a substantial amount more of renewable energy in this province," Mindorff said.

A map of Brooks shows a large chunk of farmland in a red box.
PACE Canada LP is interested in this piece of land in Brooks, Alta., for a new solar farm. (City of Brooks/Council Agenda)

Andrea Farmer, press secretary for the Ministry of Affordability and Utilities, said Alberta already has six times the solar capacity it did in 2021.

"While solar is important, it's also vitally important to ensure growing generation capacity from other sources, too, to have reliable generation capacity," she said in a statement.

For the Brooks project, in particular, Petrie says he'll have to listen to his constituents, and PACE Canada LP, before making a decision.

"As a municipal council, I believe that we have to listen to all sides of the story here," he said.

Solar farm in Brooks

PACE Canada LP has started to engage with the public in Brooks about the potential solar farm, but it will also need to complete technical studies, environmental reports and an application to the Alberta Utilities Commission before it can be built. 

One of the main concerns from residents, so far, has been that the project will be an eyesore, and it could potentially impact property values, both Petrie and Mindorff said.

The company plans to use "tree screening" to block the site from view.

The site works well for a solar farm, Mindorff said, because the property owner is interested, the land has been designated for a non-residential use and it's close to existing grid infrastructure.

"This particular substation that we're tying into services is a part of Brooks that's largely the industrial south of the city. And so finding a piece of land that's currently serviced by a distribution circuit from that substation means no new wires need to be built," he said.

"Once the project is built, we're a very quiet neighbour. We don't make very much in the way of noise."

LISTEN | Claude Mindorff with PACE Canada LP makes his pitch for a solar farm in Brooks:

The case for building a 160-acre solar farm within Brooks city limits.

The total amount of energy created would be more than the city consumes on a summer day, he said.

PACE Canada LP also partners with property owners to try to continue the land's agricultural use, Mindorff said.

That could mean creating more spacing between panels so seed planting can continue, or placing solar panels on poles so sheep can continue grazing underneath them.

Revenue for community 

Petrie says the economic benefits of the project are also worth consideration.

There's the added construction jobs and the activity in the city as the project is being built, but in the long-term, there's greater tax revenue potential.

A solar farm built by Elemental Energy is situated along the Trans-Canada Highway just outside of Brooks in Newell County.

Rows of solar panels can be seen in the distance, with a snow-covered backyard and several trees in the foreground.
This is what Newell County councillor Neil Johnson sees when he looks out of his window. A solar farm built and operated by Elemental Energy was installed on a portion of his land, which is just outside the city of Brooks. (Submitted by Neil Johnson)

It partially sits on Neil Johnson's land. The farmer and Newell councillor says the county makes about 30 times the tax revenue from the solar farm as they did when it was used purely for agricultural purposes.

"I'm a scaled-back farmer, basically retired … and they paid a pretty good yearly lease," he said.

"There's a row of trees there, you can barely see them … after a year or two, when it's in here, you just kind of get used to it."

In Vulcan County, tax from renewable energy projects makes up 45 per cent of the county's revenue; 25 per cent from solar and 20 per cent from wind, Reeve Jason Schneider said last month.

If the solar farm can become a tax benefit for the community, Petrie said, it's a positive. 

"Do we leave that area vacant for the next 10 years and don't collect any tax revenue on it? So those are the things we have to weigh."

PACE Canada LP is planning another public information and consultation session for residents at the Brooks library on March 16 from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m.

The company is hoping to break ground by the end of the year.

With files from Nathan Godfrey, Loren McGinnis