An aerial view of the EL Smith Water Treatment Plant along the North Saskatchewan River in Edmonton. File photo.

Ryan Jackson / Edmonton Journal

A new footbridge across the North Saskatchewan River, Indigenous art and a wildlife corridor are all proposed additions to make a new solar field planned for the river valley more palatable to regulators and the public.

Epcor intends to build a 23-hectare, $26-million solar farm next to its riverside E. L. Smith water treatment plant in southwest Edmonton, which would provide about half the plant’s power. It’s expected to add about seven cents a month to a typical homeowner’s utility bill.

The proposal faces opposition from people who say the city should be protecting the river valley from industrial development.

On Friday, Epcor representatives told Edmonton city council’s utility committee it has permission from the Alberta Utilities Commission and Alberta Culture and Tourism to proceed with its plans, with a few tweaks.

Due to legislation restrictions, the utility may scale back the capacity of the project to 10 megawatts from 12 MW so it can both use the energy it produces and sell excess to the grid.

Valley solar farm cheapest local option

Epcor already owns the land east of Cameron Heights and north of Anthony Henday Drive where it intends to install 45,000 solar panels. Guy Bridgeman, senior vice-president of Epcor Water Canada, told the committee that building the array next to the plant is the most cost-effective option for consumers while meeting the city’s specifications for green energy development.

Buying other land away from the river and transmitting power to the site could cost an additional $18 million, he said. Although it would be $5.4-million cheaper to build an array of wind turbines in southern Alberta, generating the energy in Edmonton will add an estimated $26 million to the city’s economy, Epcor calculated.

City council has previously told Epcor it would prefer if the utility generated renewable energy locally.

The utility has also been promised $12.6 million in federal and provincial funding for a micro-grid and battery energy storage system to use with the array. Believed to be the first of its kind in Canada, the system would allow Epcor to store power for backup and adapt to fluctuations in sunshine. Post-secondary institutions could use the system for research and teaching.

However, during the provincial election campaign, the now-elected United Conservative Party pledged to redirect $1.9 million in funding for that energy storage system to a new provincial park next door.

Craig Bonneville, director of Epcor’s Gold Bar wastewater treatment plant, said in a Friday interview the energy storage project is a worthy investment for consumers and will go ahead regardless of provincial government funding.

Environmental impact

Charles Richmond, of the Sierra Club Foundation — Edmonton, and Eric Gormley from the Edmonton River Valley Conservation Coalition reiterated their concerns about the project to the utility committee Friday.

Richmond questioned whether the city had an inherent conflict of interest in being the gatekeeper for the project when the city is Epcor’s sole shareholder. Both men lamented the potential loss of undeveloped river valley land.

Gormley said the area is among the richest with buried Indigenous artefacts. Coyotes, eagles, gophers and ungulates also use the land.

A preliminary concept plan by Epcor showing where a new solar array will be located next to the North Saskatchewan River. The plan will include trails, interpretive and cultural sites and a demonstration project to teach about solar power and storage.

Trina Manning, senior manager of Epcor’s water plants projects, said the utility has been working with Indigenous groups to gain their support and incorporate their history and culture into the site.

Epcor plans to add trails and lookout platforms, build a footbridge across the river to a viewing platform and add a 40-metre buffer zone for wildlife and natural vegetation at the south end of the solar array. It will also set solar panels back 100 metres from the river, introduce plants that attract pollinating insects and set up a demonstration site where visitors can see how the solar energy storage system works.

To proceed, Epcor needs the city to issue a development permit, to rezone the land and to alter an area development plan. Council will consider two of these steps in June.

If approved, work could begin on the solar array early next year and be complete by the end of 2020, Richmond said.



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