Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
The executive director of the national organization Indigenous Clean Energy (ICE) says the Alberta government’s recent announcement to pause green energy development wasn’t entirely unexpected, but it is a disappointment for Indigenous communities and businesses.
“I was somewhat surprised, but there had been a high number of approvals,” said James Jenkins, a member of the Walpole Island First Nation in Ontario.
On Aug. 2, Nathan Neudorf, Alberta’s minister of Affordability and Utilities, issued an order-in-council directing the Alberta Utilities Commission (AUC) to conduct an inquiry into new renewable electricity.
That regulatory review process will involve new power plant applications, including wind, solar, thermal and hydroelectric.
Regulations enacted through an order-in-council prohibit the AUC from issuing approvals for new renewable energy developments from Aug. 3, 2023, to Feb. 29, 2024.
According to a fact sheet released by the Pembina Institute on Aug. 24, the moratorium will impact 118 projects currently in development, waiting for permitting approval, or could potentially submit an application for approval within the next few months.
The Pembina Institute said it had reviewed the Alberta Electric System Operator’s (AESO) list of electricity generation projects in development. The total investments supporting the projects are estimated at more tan $33 billion, with an additional $263 million per year of revenue from municipal taxes for at least 27 municipalities.
That list includes at least six projects with Indigenous involvement. There are solar projects to be undertaken by Chiniki First Nation, Paul Band, Ermineskin Cree Nation, and Piikani Nation. Sawridge First Nation is also involved in three phases of Capstone Infrastructure Corp.’s Buffalo Atlee Wind Farm.
According to figures from ICE, there are at least 40 green energy projects in Alberta that have some degree of Indigenous ownership. Across the country, says Jenkins, there are about 1,000 clean energy projects with Indigenous ownership.
“Indigenous communities have been leaders in clean energy for quite some time now. And now that the federal government has made more of a commitment towards reaching net zero, with that comes the need for electrification and a growing demand for generation projects,” said Jenkins, noting that his organization has grown in the last few years since its inception in 2016.
Green energy development ranges from the smaller dozen-kilowatt project to 100 megawatts or more, he says.
“There is alignment between the values and those Indigenous communities as far as the obligation to be stewards of the land and to contribute towards climate action,” said Jenkins.
Green projects also provide an opportunity for economic development.
Most recently, Chiniki and Goodstoney First Nations announced a partnership agreement with ATCO that has the two First Nations with a 51 per cent ownership stake in the Deerfoot and Barlow Solar power projects, the largest solar installation in an urban centre in western Canada.
The 27-megawatt Barlow project reached commercial operations earlier in June 2023 with the 37-megawatt Deerfoot project to become operational shortly. Neither project was impacted by the moratorium.
Darcy Fedorchuk, ATCO VP of North American Power & Renewables, said the dialogues with the two Stoney Nations took about 18 months and began before construction in May 2022 on both sites.
Despite the need for lengthy discussions, Fedorchuk doesn’t anticipate the provincial government’s pause will delay ATCO’s involvement with Indigenous partners. In fact, he says, ATCO is currently having discussions with Indigenous partners on other project opportunities in renewables in Alberta.
“We're continuing to develop one project that we have an existing approval on. We are going to welcome conversations with First Nations on it and we'll continue in that space,” said Fedorchuk.
Fedorchuk refused to say if he was surprised by the province’s decision to call for a “pause,” which is the word he prefers over “moratorium,” in green energy development.
“I think the entirety of the industry would suggest that there has been a deepening penetration in the development of renewables, which has created some requirement for a dialogue on a number of the matters that the provincial government has set out and we welcome the opportunity to be engaged in those dialogues,” said Fedorchuk.
Areas the AUC will consider include development on certain agricultural or environmental lands; the impact on “pristine viewscapes”; mandatory reclamation requirements; and development on Alberta Crown lands.
Jenkins says his organization is “relatively small” and needs to be selective in its involvements as “all jurisdictions have a high need for engagement at those consultation tables because we see electrical demand increasing everywhere.”
However, Jenkins says, ICE will work closely with partners to ensure that their voice is heard at the consultation tables.
“I fundamentally believe that the outcome of the pause will continue to enable the development of renewables and…the potential for future partnerships on renewable opportunities, whether it's wind, solar or batteries,” said Fedorchuk.
He views tackling the issues the government has itemized as a means to provide industry with certainty that in turn will allow the investment dollars to continue to flow.
Jenkins says there is a concern that the re-examination of the green energy sector by the province could result in difficulties for the industry.
“The possibility of that happening is certainly a concern, so we remain hopeful and we'll use our best efforts to under score the benefits of Indigenous partners and Indigenous-led clean energy projects,” he said.
In its Sept. 11 bulletin, the AUC sets out a timeframe for submissions from the industry. Its final report is to be submitted to Neudorf by March 29, 2024. There is no timeframe indicated, however, for the minister to act on the recommendations.
“From our conversation both with industry and government, we have a degree of confidence that the pause whether it's (to) February 29th or March 29th, 30th, …whatever the date, will have enough guidance on what will be the expectations for the development of renewables, how to go forward after that period,” said Fedorchuk.
Jenkins is hopeful the pause results in more effective planning and placement of projects in order to provide the best impact and best measures for sustainability.
“As long as the pause is expedited and those planning efforts are underway, I think it could be justified as long as the time is well spent,” he said.
Local Journalism Initiative Reporters are supported by a financial contribution made by the Government of Canada.