Preserve Edmonton's river valley from industry - stop Epcor's solar power plant

Sign THE petition!

If you support solar – but not in the river valley, call or email your city councilor and the mayor to let them know. Want to do more? Contact ERVCC to find out how you can lend a hand to our campaign. Still more? Attend and speak at the public hearing on the rezoning (date TBC) this spring.

Background

In 2017, EPCOR presented a proposal to the city of Edmonton to build a solar power plant next to the E.L. Smith water treatment plant in the west end of the city. While the catalyst for the proposal was a requirement by the city of Edmonton for EPCOR to “convert approximately 10% of its conventional power consumption to locally produced renewable sources,” the city left the details up to EPCOR, and to help enable the shift, it permitted EPCOR to add a premium to its customers’ bills to subsidize the project.

EPCOR’s solar power plant proposal requires the rezoning of 99 acres of river valley parkland (adjacent to the proposed Big Island / Woodbend Urban Provincial Park) for industrial use, the cutting of trees, enclosure of the area by a fence, and installation of 45,000 ground-mounted solar panels. As indicated in the business case it presented to Edmonton’s Utilities Committee in February 2018, EPCOR chose this location because it enables the greatest profit: EPCOR owns the land, there would be transmission cost savings, and there would be corporate benefit in developing solar energy expertise and in constructing tangible assets.

While EPCOR is to be commended for developing solar power in Edmonton, this development should not happen at the expense of the river valley. As the business case acknowledges, the main goal of the project is “environmental responsibility” (1, 13). An information board at the project open house also stated that EPCOR is “committed to the City of Edmonton’s objective to become a leader in energy efficiency and conservation” (slide 5).

However, the river valley location directly prevents conservation and hence environmental sustainability; cutting trees and using river valley land means this proposal is anything but green. The proposal runs counter to the River Valley bylaw, which states as its first goal: “to ensure preservation of the natural character and environment of the North Saskatchewan River Valley and its Ravine System.” And this bylaw was expressly created to keep industrial use out of the river valley; as the bylaw itself notes, “civic uses such as public utilities” are a threat to the river valley, and “these uses tend to be incompatible with the aims of nature preservation and parkland development.”

The proposal also conflicts with Edmonton’s environmental master plan “The Way We Green.” While EPCOR’s business case frequently cites “The Way We Green,” it cherry-picks references to alternative energy and ignores references to conservation, such as: “The City protects, preserves, and enhances the North Saskatchewan River Valley and Ravine System as Edmonton’s greatest natural asset.” Looking ahead, the proposal also interferes with Edmonton’s goals with its “Ribbon of Green” and “Breathe” strategies.

In order for this project to be environmentally responsible, it must consider both energy efficiency and conservation. A solar power plant in the river valley does not do this. The problem seems to be a conflict of shareholder requirements: EPCOR is expected to work as a commercial entity and thereby maximize profit, and at the same time it is being asked to develop an environmentally responsible project. Environmental projects cannot be evaluated by classical economic models focused on profit; they need to follow true-cost accounting. In this case, that means accounting for “conservation value,” which is well known to be an unquantifiable yet irreplaceable value.

The following diagram, taken from “The Way We Green,” shows the hierarchy of nested values used in true-cost accounting. It shows how the environment has the highest value, social needs have the second-highest value, and economic decisions carry the third-highest value.

Because the proposal does not account for conservation value of the land, it does not align with environmental best practices for solar, which involve “site without regrets” as a guideline. As the Solar Trade Association notes, “Ground-mounted solar should ideally utilise previously developed land, brownfield, contaminated land, industrial land and [low-grade] agricultural land.”

Conservation Value

Edmonton’s North Saskatchewan River Valley is the only ecological corridor through our city. While EPCOR’s proposal states it mitigates wildlife interference by allowing a 100-metre corridor alongside the facility, this number seems arbitrary and insufficient rather than backed by scientific evidence. Karsten Heuer, a well-known wildlife biologist with the Yellowstone to Yukon Corridor initiative, has emphasized that minimum width must be 450 meters, and in 2017, a development project in Canmore was rejected because it involved a corridor width of only 350 meters. While Edmonton’s river valley contains “pinch points” of less than 450 meters, these are recognized as problematic areas – and it certainly makes no sense to introduce a new one as part of a project whose goal is “environmental responsibility.”

The river valley land in question offers a perfect opportunity for restoration and is capable of providing excellent riparian habitat. Habitat loss is now recognized to be as serious a problem globally as climate change (see the UN-funded report released by the ISPPB this past March), so destroying habitat negates the environmental benefit of developing solar energy. We need to stop further habitat destruction and focus on restoring the open spaces that exist. “The Way We Green” likewise notes, “local and global ecosystem loss [is] a trend that places our own sustainability and quality of life at risk. [In Edmonton], in a given year more natural areas are still lost than protected. With biodiversity on the decline around the world and in Edmonton, new tools are needed to achieve the City’s biodiversity commitments.” The first goal listed in “The Way We Green” is to “Protect, preserve, and restore ecosystems and increase biodiversity.”

Likewise, trees should not be cut in the river valley for a solar power plant. As Edmonton’s Urban Forest Management Plan makes clear, “Edmonton’s trees represent an irreplaceable asset. The 2010 Corporate Tree Policy tree assessment…estimate[s] the value of the publicly owned portion of our urban forest at more than $1.2 billion. Unlike other municipal infrastructure, trees increase in value over time. The urban forest also makes a quantifiable contribution to the long-term livability of our city. Using modeling programs developed by the US Department of Agriculture and Forest Service, City staff measured our urban forest’s ability to clean the air, reduce stormwater runoff and sequester carbon. Combining field observations, meteorological information and air quality readings, Edmonton’s forest removed an estimated 531 tonnes of pollutants in 2009 alone, a feat worth more than $3 million.”

Finally, open green space is of major benefit for recreational use by Edmontonians. The physical and mental health benefits of access to nature are well documented, and Edmonton’s river valley furthermore provides an unparalleled opportunity for people to learn about nature. The healthier the ecosystem, the deeper the opportunity for learning proper stewardship. As the southwest of Edmonton expands, maintaining green space in the river valley – as wide wild spaces and as linear corridor – is ever-more important.

Alternatives

Transitioning to solar power involves a major opportunity for public education and engagement. Locating the project in the river valley will make the project controversial rather than simply encouraging Edmontonians to embrace the transition to renewable energy. It also sets a bad precedent for industrial use of the river valley, both by public utilities and private landowners who might seek to lease their land for similar use.

A better solution is afforded by another option EPCOR explored, which is locating the panels on rooftops of their various facilities. While this might involve greater capital costs, those costs are more than offset by saving 99 acres of river valley parkland. Furthermore, the goal of implementing 10% renewable energy was not intended as an endpoint, but rather a starting point, to shift toward greater sustainability and resiliency. The incentive should thus be used to invest in scalable projects on rooftops or in brownfields and parking lots so that EPCOR can learn from and which have the future potential to leverage community investments.

Another option is for EPCOR to enter into a third-party contract to purchase green power. The Government of Alberta will soon roll out its Community Generation Program to help achieve its goal for 30% of the province’s energy to come from sustainable sources by 2030. This may provide opportunities for EPCOR to partner with individuals, organizations and businesses in Edmonton and area to produce renewable energy.

Tying either option above to restoration of the river valley land around the E.L. Smith Water Treatment Plant would make this a model environmental project, demonstrating the careful land use needed to truly transition Edmonton toward sustainability and resiliency – which is, of course, the main goal of shifting to solar energy.

Conclusion

Edmonton has spent the last century removing industry from the river valley to restore habitat and enable healthy recreational use.

Allowing industrial facilities in the river valley now ­– irrespective of the type of service they provide – is a step backward. This land is most valuable as conserved natural land.

The ERVCC supports the development of solar energy in Edmonton, but in a smart location. There is a special irony in cutting down trees and destroying the environment to make way for a solar power plant. That’s what rooftops and brownfields and parking lots are for. As the North Saskatchewan River Valley Conservation Society’s executive direct Harvey Voogd has said, “Green energy should not be produced at the expense of Edmonton’s ribbon of green.”

What You Can Do

Sign our petition!

If you support solar – but not in the river valley, call or email your city councilor and the mayor to let them know. Want to do more? Contact ERVCC to find out how you can lend a hand to our campaign. Still more? Attend and speak at the public hearing on the rezoning (date TBC) this spring.