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Wind farm developer discusses multi-million-dollar project

The Pihew Waciy Wind project being proposed for development by Northland Power in the County of St. Paul has moved into the public engagement phase.

ST. PAUL - While the developer of a wind energy project proposed for construction in the County of St. Paul said it is premature to put a dollar figure on the project, it is likely to exceed the $100 million mark.  

“It is still a bit premature because we are still getting estimates from contractors as well as turbine suppliers, but it is definitely over a hundred million dollars for sure, and it’s going to be well north of that in terms of total investment size,” Chris Stanton, project developer with Northland Power, said last Tuesday in explaining the magnitude of the Pihew Waciy Wind Project to Lakeland This Week, from his home in Pennsylvania. 

As a result, Stanton suggested the added value of the industrial asset to the municipality’s tax roll should not be underestimated as he claims it will have a substantial impact as a new industrial tax source for the County. 

“It is fair to say, I was looking at the existing property tax roll of the County of St. Paul, and it appears that the addition of this asset to the property tax rolls would increase the total value of property in the county by anywhere between seven and 10 per cent,” Stanton said. 

While the project is not at the shovel in the ground phase and still some time away from the County realizing any of that potential tax revenue, the project has entered the public engagement phase - an all-important lead up to Northland Power filing formal application and pursuing the permitting process through the Alberta Utilities Commission (AUC) this coming spring. If it gets the green light at that level, construction could then potentially begin in early 2024. 

Locally, the municipality carries little weight as far as playing much of a role in whether such a project moves forward within its boundaries. While council and administration took steps earlier this year to shore up its Municipal Development Plan (MDP) and Land Use Bylaw (LUB) to address alternate energy production projects including solar and wind energy, jurisdiction over large scale commercial energy projects is in the hands of the Province, not local municipalities. 

However, there is room for local agreements to provide protection for such things as roads, particularly during the construction phase, between the County and the developer. Stanton said such an agreement would protect both the municipality and the developer. 

“I am not exactly sure where we would be procuring our concrete and our aggregate – likely from multiple sources across the area, as close to the project as possible, but there is no doubt that the route from those sources to those foundations would see very heavy use and there’s no doubt there would be some cost to us as a company to repair and restore those roads . . ." 

Northland Power is not new to energy generation. In a glossy newsletter delivered in the mail to landowners in the vicinity of the project’s footprint last week, the company describes itself a “Canadian global power producer dedicated to accelerating the clean energy transition by producing electricity from renewable resources.” Stanton, himself, has led in the development of several wind farms through the US states of New York, Oklahoma and Texas. 

Why here? 

Why build a wind farm in northeast Alberta – one would think it’s not a typical location, not a windswept prairie landscape for one thing. But as Stanton answers the question, it quickly becomes evident that as with so many other things, supply and demand are significant factors. While there is benefit from the strong winds that blow across the southern part of the province, the competition is also strong, and the resulting price paid for electricity generated is lower because the wind farms are all producing and uploading to the grid at the same time.  

“We identified this area of the province as really promising because there’s a lot of availability on the transmission grid to put in a new power plant. You don’t have the same intensive competition from other producers of wind energy or solar energy for that matter,” Stanton said. 

The transmission line Northland Power will plug into runs down along Range Rd. 72. He said there is available room, which is not the case for many transmission lines across the province. Also, the existing line can accommodate the power plant without a need for upgrading it. 

“With respect to the sale of the electricity, we are right now out speaking to potential buyers of electricity across Alberta,” Stanton said. “Our expectation is we would sell the energy to a large company or utility or a city in the same way as any power plant would.” 

Also considered in locating the wind farm in the area was the existing land use. Largely agricultural, the land secured for the construction of upwards of 35 wind turbines lies in the area between Range Rd. 71 and Range Rd. 75 with Highway 29 running through the middle of the area. 

“The reality is wind turbines are excellent complements to agriculture settings …. We make a decent mess, it’s true, when we’re first constructing but at the end of the construction, we put the crop land or grazing land right back to where it was,” Stanton assured. The topsoil is returned, the land is re-seeded, and the result is a 16-foot-wide gravel road, a turbine that has “a remarkably small” gravel footprint around it and the remainder of the land continues to be farmed. 

“You see cattle grazing right up next to the turbines. We tried very hard in this project as we have done in others to locate the access roads in a manner so the farmer can get a secondary beneficial use from those access roads, so he or she can access their land with their equipment in a better way.” 

He said participating property owners will see one to two acres of their quarter section converted to accommodate the development. “The remainder of the farm remains a source of income and a farm, and the income from the turbine supplements what the farmer is already making from the use of that property.” 

Stanton declined to reveal what participating landowners will be paid for permitting wind farm infrastructure on their land. However, he did say once the turbines are operating, the income to participating landowners all combined will be in the order of about “half a million dollars per year,” and adjusted for inflation over time. 

Stanton recognizes that there will be people opposed to the project, some more vehemently than others. An open house being held on Nov. 16 at Reunion Station in St. Paul from 3p.m. to 7 p.m. is providing people with the first public opportunity to learn more about the project, ask questions and express concerns if they have them. 

“The best way to ensure a successful project here is to hear the concerns at this stage as we are still designing the project and if there are ways to alter the design or alter the operations of a project in some manner to meet folks' concerns, obviously we will do that if it is in the realm of possibility.” 

The Pihew Waciy Wind Project draws its name from the Cree language – Pihew (prairie chicken) and Waciy (hill), according to Stanton. 

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