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Debate brews over incentives for southeast Calgary solar farms

The Calgary councillor putting forth a plan to incentivize low-carbon investments said the area where two solar farms are being built has few other uses.

At Tuesday’s regular meeting of council, councillors will debate Coun. Evan Spencer’s motion to direct city admin to negotiate tax incentives for ATCO, who is building two solar farms in southeast Calgary. Eighteen months ago, ATCO announced the plans for the two projects. One is near 114 Avenue SE and 52 Street SE – the Deerfoot project – and another project is at Barlow Trail and 114 Avenue SE. They are both on brownfield land.

The item was approved on merit at the last Executive Committee meeting, but it had three dissenting votes. Couns. Andre Chabot, Sean Chu and Dan McLean were opposed.

Spencer said the land, owned by agriculture giant Viterra, has soil contamination that limits the area’s use.  Spencer said back when environmental regulations weren’t as stringent, fertilizer by-product was disposed of in the area where the solar farms are being installed. 

Since then, a clay cap several feet deep has been put over the contaminated soil as part of the area remediation. The ATCO panels will go on top of the ground to not disturb the soil. Spencer said trees can’t even be planted in the area because the roots would breach the clay cap.

“It was either going to sit there having minimal usage, paying minimally into the city’s coffers for generations, unless something came along and found a way to remediate the land or find an even more productive use for the land, but the options were extremely limited,” he said.

Spencer said the solar farms will increase the land value, bringing in more tax dollars. ATCO approached the city to find a middle ground in the delta between the land value today and the value when the projects are complete.

Several problems with the plan: Chabot

Ward 10 Coun. Andre Chabot voted against the motion moving on to council. He said his opposition to the idea has grown since then.

Chabot said he’s concerned about the environmental impact of the panels themselves, including the greenhouse gases needed to build and transport the panels. He’s also concerned about the amount of heat they generate.

What irks him even more is that there’s polluter pay legislation and he thinks the city is letting the landowner off the hook. (ATCO is leasing the land from Viterra.)

“Now we’re talking about essentially sweeping contamination under the proverbial solar panel rug if you will,” he said.

Finally, Chabot said he’s confused why the City of Calgary would want to subsidize one of the competitors of its own wholly-owned subsidiary: Enmax.

“It’s like being a Coca-Cola shareholder and trying to convince all the other Coca-Cola shareholders that they should provide a subsidy to Pepsi,” Chabot said.

Spencer preferred to look bigger picture than just the ATCO negotiations. He said that given the city’s commitment to climate and a low-carbon future, this sets the standard. It’s a broader conversation about low-carbon investment.

“There’s an opportunity here to incentivize more investment in this direction,” Spencer said.

“We should look at it and make sure that if there’s an opportunity to see more of the kind of activity we want to see, more of the investment that we want to see, that there’s an opportunity for us to get involved, we should at least consider it.”

Spencer believed the motion would be amended to clarify the broader conversation around all low-carbon investments.