2012-10-29 AWA Comments to AUC on Wind Energy Regulation
After reviewing a summary of stakeholder discussions following a stakeholder engagement process by the Alberta Utilities Commission (AUC) on the development of wind energy regulations in Alberta, AWA has serious outstanding concerns and related suggestions regarding the regulation of wind energy development in Alberta. There are a number of critical issues that have not been adequately addressed including the far-reaching footprint of wind energy developments, the necessary role of AUC as a regulator in compliance monitoring, the need for clear regulations guiding environmental thresholds and reclamation of old sites, the need to have regional planning that identifies thresholds for cumulative impacts, and the need to employ the precautionary principle and adaptive management in this rapidly changing and expanding industry.
Alberta Utilities Commission
Fifth Avenue Place, Fourth Floor
425 First Street S.W.
Calgary, Alberta, Canada T2P 3L8
October 29, 2012
RE: Wind generation regulatory process review.
Comments on Stakeholder Engagement
Summary of Discussion September 28, 2012
Dear Mr. Lee,
After reviewing the Comments on the Stakeholder Engagement Summary of Discussion, we have serious outstanding concerns and related suggestions regarding the regulation of wind energy development in Alberta. There are a number of critical issues that have not been adequately addressed including the far-reaching footprint of wind energy developments, the necessary role of AUC as a regulator in compliance monitoring, the need for clear regulations guiding environmental thresholds and reclamation of old sites, the need to have regional planning that identifies thresholds for cumulative impacts, and the need to employ the precautionary principle and adaptive management in this rapidly changing and expanding industry.
We have structured our comments in categories as defined in the Summary of Discussions.
· The buildable area approach. The buildable areas approach does not take into account important considerations that could have large impacts on outcomes for wildlife and ecological processes. As described in the summary document, the buildable areas approach would allow for turbine height, rotor size and turbine layout to be initially approved on a ‘worst-case scenario’ basis within a defined buildable area allowing for changes in layout and changes to the turbines after initial approval. This approach does not appear to take into consideration that the spatial placement of turbines within the buildable area may be as important to direct mortality of wildlife as the type of the turbine itself. In addition, the far-reaching indirect impacts of associated infrastructure (roads, transmission lines) may change depending on the turbine layout (increase or decrease in total area disturbed.) It is pertinent to mention here that the significance of increased road density cannot be overstated. Considering cumulative impacts on a regional scale, what may appear to be minor changes on one site can add up to significant changes cumulatively. Current research suggests that the spatial configuration of the turbines on the site (in or out of major movement corridor), placement in relation to features such as trees or wetlands (higher mortality has been noted near trees where raptors nest or bats roost) and placement in relation to other turbines (studies have shown differences in mortality rates for linear or clumped turbine placement) all may have large impacts on wildlife. Another important consideration is the timing of operation. Certain times of year and certain types of weather may be inappropriate for operation due to high risk of mortality.
One way to incorporate these variables (as well as social variables such as viewscape, noise setbacks, road setbacks etc) and increase efficiency in the process may be to take an outcomes approach whereby site-specific design requirements are decided upon on a site by site basis at the beginning of the process and operators would then have the freedom to make any changes they would like throughout the process as long as those clearly identified requirements are met. This type of approach would ensure that critical values and potential risks and impacts are assessed and considered at the beginning of the process and that operators are given clear requirements to adhere to from the beginning while still allowing them flexibility and privacy in terms of the actual turbines to be used.
· Length of Time for Approvals Process “Opportunities to shorten the approval process were also noted by wind developers.” Delays and the potential for future time-consuming conflict are often caused by a lack of clear regulation defining environmental thresholds and limits from the outset of the proposal. Clear regulations (not voluntary guidelines) and clear understanding of the responsibility to monitor and enforce those regulations would streamline the approvals process without undermining the multiple values that need to be considered in the design of the development. In addition, having a regional plan that clearly identifies areas that are not appropriate for development (such as native prairie lands) and areas that are generally suitable for development would streamline the approvals process.
· Cumulative Impacts and Regional Planning It is crucial to have clear regional planning to guide development to suitable areas of the province. Clear thresholds for the cumulative impacts need to be stated before widespread and rapid expansion of wind energy development occurs in the province. Clear planning and cumulative impacts assessment must also ensure that use of existing infrastructure is maximized to prevent redundant new infrastructure from being put into place, and that any new infrastructure built is designed on the landscape in a way that maximises its use and minimizes disturbance to sensitive ecosystems.
· Native Prairie and public lands Grasslands and parklands, the ecosystems where most wind development occur, are the most cultivated ecosystems in Alberta and much of what little remains is fragmented. Development should be guided towards cultivated areas and avoid areas of remaining native prairie and parkland. Given that both of these ecosystems are the most modified and the least represented in protected areas in the province containing high numbers of endemic species and species at risk, no new development that will result in the loss and degradation/ fragmentation of these sensitive ecosystems should be approved. No new disturbance of this magnitude should be taking place on intact native prairie or parkland patches. Regional plans, as discussed above, should identify these areas clearly as no-go zones and development should be directed towards cultivated areas. This will increase efficiency and decrease processing time in the approvals process.
· Wildlife It is alarming that the discussion around impacts to wildlife appears to be restricted to direct mortality and ignores the other equally important impacts. Direct as well as indirect impacts on wildlife need to be considered when developing regulations for wind energy. While the summary acknowledges the impact on wildlife species through direct mortality caused by collision with turbines, (“wildlife concerns are primarily related to bird and bat mortalities”) and the potential for disturbances to nesting or den sites, it seems to overlook the well-documented and far-reaching impacts of the overall footprint of wind turbines and associated infrastructure. The impacts of linear disturbances, such as roads, have been well demonstrated to have serious impacts on wildlife and ecosystems. Wind energy development can contribute to habitat loss, fragmentation and resulting ecosystem degradation through invasive species colonization, loss of topsoil, soil compaction, increased human activity and associated problems (poaching, irresponsible land use, disturbances to sensitive wildlife), changes in the hydrological cycle, changes in species composition and interactions, edge creation and associated effects, increased transmission of parasites and diseases, increased noise pollution and even the potential for changes in micro-climate by extremely large wind farms has been noted in some research). Environmental regulations must consider these impacts as well as direct mortality. There are also many unknowns as we move forward with wind energy technology and therefore the precautionary principle and adaptive management must be used in the design, planning and regulation of wind energy.
· Reclamation of abandoned wind farms “Industry participants noted that reclamation issues are addressed through a contract between the landowner and the wind turbine operator.” Reclamation of abandoned wind farms must be regulated with clear deadlines and ongoing monitoring to ensure that desired outcomes are achieved. Reclamation of abandoned wind farms cannot be left as a contract between a private land-owner and the industry. The potential cumulative impacts of these large scale developments are significant on the landscape and cannot be left unregulated and unmonitored to a voluntary process between a land owner and the operator.
· Post-construction compliance monitoring We are very concerned at the suggestion that compliance monitoring be left to AESRD as they are not a regulatory body and have indicated that they do not have the capacity to take on this role. The role of AUC as a third party regulatory body is crucial in compliance monitoring and these responsibilities must not be left to a non-regulatory body such as AESRD who have indicated that they do not have the resources for such activities. Currently, there is a serious and concerning gap in the regulatory process leaving field audit, post-development monitoring and reclamation activities largely unmonitored and unaccounted for. This gap must be addressed before widespread development occurs on the landscape. It is in the best interest of all stakeholders that there are clear regulations around ecological thresholds, set-backs, development design, reclamation and on-going monitoring, and a clear understanding of who is responsible to enforce those regulations. This role should not be shifted to AESRD as past events have demonstrated the need to have a third-party regulatory body to oversee compliance and monitoring.
Wind energy development is rapidly growing in the province of Alberta. Before we see this rapid increase on the ground we must ensure appropriate planning and a clear regulatory process are in place to ensure that critical thresholds are identified through regional plans and that negative impacts are avoided where possible and managed for using the best available knowledge where avoidance is not an option.
ALBERTA WILDERNESS ASSOCIATION