Alberta has announced comprehensive new regulations to govern renewable energy development, effectively barring projects from prime agricultural land and instituting no-build zones around key natural landscapes. 

Premier Danielle Smith and Utilities Minister Nathan Neudorf unveiled the changes, ending a near seven-month moratorium on renewable energy project approvals.

The renewable industry says it was not consulted prior to the pause, according to the Globe and Mail. The industry raised concerns that unprecedented government intervention into the multi-billion-dollar sector would create severe uncertainty and stifle investment.

Alberta municipalities and landowners have been raising concerns about the rapid growth of renewable energy projects, said the provincial government. Investors were also seeking clarification on rules for project development, which led to Alberta’s government introducing a short pause on final approvals for large renewable energy projects so that the Alberta Utilities Commission could conduct an inquiry and issue a report. 

The inquiry was split into two groups by the Alberta Utilities Commission, aiming to comprehensively address land use, reclamation, and how renewable power integrates with Alberta’s grid, among other issues. The pause on final approvals will lift on Thursday.

“Alberta has led the country in renewable energy investment, and we will continue to lead the country. At the same time, we must grow our renewable energy industry in well-defined and responsible ways,” said Smith.

Under the new rules, renewable energy projects, including solar, wind, and other forms, will not be permitted on private lands with high irrigation capabilities. Exceptions are possible but require proof that agricultural operations can coexist with energy generation.

Neudorf sent a letter to the Alberta Utilities Commission to provide policy guidance based on the first report it submitted to the government. Following the review of the second report, Neudorf will send a letter to the commission with additional policy direction.

“We are committed to continue listening to Albertans on this issue as we set a clear and responsible path forward for energy development,” said Neudorf.

A significant aspect of the new policy is the establishment of buffer zones, extending a minimum of 35 kilometres from protected areas and pristine viewscapes, to safeguard Alberta’s renowned landscapes from the visual impact of wind turbines and other renewable infrastructures.

The Alberta Utilities Commission has been tasked with enforcing these rules, including managing reclamation responsibilities. Developers will now need to secure bonds or negotiate cleanup costs directly with landowners, ensuring the land’s return to its original state post-project.

Corporate power deals in Alberta have supported nearly $4.7 billion in new capital investment since 2019. The vast majority of these deals have been in rural parts of the province, where they have provided about $28 million in revenues to municipalities.

Local municipalities gain new rights under the regulations, such as participating in Alberta Utilities Commission hearings, a move that Vulcan County Reeve Jason Schneider applauded. 

“We believe this announcement is a very balanced and thoughtful approach to long-term sustainable renewable development in Alberta,” said Schneider.

The policy changes come after an extensive consultation led by the Alberta Utilities Commission, which sought feedback from developers, landowners, and other stakeholders. The aim was to address the growing concerns about the impact of rapid renewable energy expansion on agricultural land and local communities.

Despite the new restrictions, Alberta’s commitment to renewable energy remains strong, with the government ensuring that the sector continues to play a vital role in the province’s energy mix. 

“An ‘agriculture first’ approach supports the rural economy and conserves grasslands, preventing the release of the several million tonnes of stored carbon and allowing wildlife, including species at risk, to thrive. These changes will bring security to landowners and rural communities,” said Brodie Haugan, chair of Alberta Beef Producers.

Minister Neudorf’s letter to the Alberta Utilities Commission on Wednesday explained that Alberta continues to see 3,300 megawatts of wind and solar projects under construction, 2,760 megawatts with Alberta Utilities Commission approvals, and about 22,900 megawatts of additional announced wind and solar projects. 

“Alberta recognizes that renewables will continue to be an important part of the generation mix. We continue to welcome further investment into the sector and look forward to maintaining investor confidence in Alberta as an investment destination,” wrote Neudorf in his letter.

Renewable energy sources like wind and solar have been cited as being increasingly unreliable.

True North previously reported that despite Alberta’s 44 wind farms, there have been times when they only produced 0.3% of their total capacity. The combined output of wind and solar has been below 0.2% of maximum capacity on numerous occasions.