Regional Differences in Environmental Assessments for Renewables

Written by: Mike Peckford, Business Leader, Atlantic Canada/National Lead Renewable Energy and Tyler Reid, Environmental Planning and Ecology Team Manager / Project Manager 

Understanding environmental risk is critical for any renewable energy project. As discussed in the first article in this series, projects can be delayed, incur costly mitigation requirements, or even denied if environmental concerns aren’t properly addressed.

Environmental assessment (EA) requirements typically vary by province or within regions of a province, depending on variability of the enforcement of provincial regulations, the location of sensitive habitats, as well as public sentiment. As the renewable energy team at Hemmera has experienced, elements that lead to a renewable energy project being approved in Ontario may differ in provinces like Saskatchewan or British Columbia. In Alberta, we’ve also seen regulatory bodies apply new, and unique, regulatory policies, standards and best management practices to renewable energy projects compared to those required by other industry sectors.

These regional and sector differences require renewable developers to have in-depth knowledge of the area where they want to develop their projects, including the unique regulatory and community engagement processes. Hemmera has worked with project developers and stakeholders across the country to mitigate and manage varying environmental risks ranging from preserving sensitive species habitats to native grassland.

Workington Coastline

Here we take a look at some of our work across Canada, in particular the North, the Prairies and the Maritimes:

Regional Differences Need to be Understood

Most provinces and territories approach their EA processes differently, based on their unique environmental landscape and regulations. For instance, Yukon has a co-management permitting approach where projects are reviewed and approved by the Indigenous community in which the proposed project is located. In provinces like British Columbia, Alberta and Ontario, the provincial government handles EA applications and approvals. In the Maritimes, while each province handles its own approvals, there is typically a closer relationship with federal environmental agencies offering advisory services compared to other regions of the country. Lastly, projects located on federal lands (i.e., First Nation Reserve lands), or very large projects that are designated under the federal Physical Activities Regulation, will require federal environmental review and approval.

Below are some examples of the key differences in achieving project approvals within three regions across the country:

• North: Each of the territories has its own EA requirements and processes that have evolved from modern Indigenous land claims. Developers must work directly with Indigenous and local communities to decrease risks to their project approval and construction. Effective collaboration with Indigenous communities requires deep local knowledge of the area, the people, their priorities and values. We support our clients to understand how their projects can benefit local people and communities, whether it is an investment opportunity, energy independence, training or employment.

Based on our experience working with Indigenous groups within the territory, and wind energy projects in particular, Hemmera was chosen to conduct the traditional knowledge and traditional land-use study for the Inuvik Wind Project, working with the Government of Northwest Territories and Nihtat Corporation. As the lead environmental, socio-economic and assessment/permitting consultant for the project, Hemmera was responsible for building a regulatory roadmap from design to construction, including responsibility for all regulatory aspects of the project, except consultation. Our team effectively engaged federal, territorial and Gwich’in governments regarding the scope of design of environmental studies and completed intensive migratory bird surveys, grizzly bear denning and incidental wildlife observations while managing vegetation mapping — elements that were unique to the territory.

Prairies (Alberta and Saskatchewan): Alberta has a very prescriptive EA process that reflects its direct to permit framework that allows commencement of construction upon approval. By way of contrast, Saskatchewan has a two-stage EA review process where project applications with minor impacts are screened out without incurring a more detailed assessment. In recent years, the government of Alberta updated its regulatory processes for renewable project development, which is managed by the Alberta Utilities Commission. Hemmera has helped renewable energy developers in Alberta to understand and interpret these changes to benefit their developments. An example is our work with TransAlta Corp.’s 206 MW Windrise Wind Project near Fort MacLeod, Alberta, which is set to begin operations mid-2021. Our team prepared the project’s environmental evaluation report, outlining the area’s environmental components, potential adverse effects, developed project-specific mitigation measures and proposed construction and operation monitoring. The approach we developed to create the environmental evaluation incorporated Alberta Environment and Parks feedback into the AUC submission, thereby reducing review timelines and information requests from the AUC. This approach helped TransAlta gain the fastest ever approval for a wind project from the Alberta Utilities Commission.

Maritimes: The Nova Scotia government has recently updated regulations to allow for future growth of the renewable sector in the province. Given this positioning, Hemmera has established a stronger presence and expertise in the Maritimes region, bringing our decades of experience to the region to support our clients that are exploring the region for opportunities. A somewhat unique regulatory requirement for recently approved wind energy projects in the Maritimes is the use of marine radar to assess the potential collision risk to migratory birds. To help streamline this assessment requirement, our Nova Scotia based staff is positioned to assist with local experts to complete a multi-year, Nova Scotia wide, migratory bird and wind energy risk assessment, scheduled to begin in 2021. If this project proceeds, it will provide valuable region-specific information on bird movements to inform decision making by both wind energy developers and regulators, and aid in the siting of future wind energy projects in areas of least potential risk for migratory species. The goals of the project will be to help identify areas of lower environmental risk, streamline the EA approval process, minimize operational mitigation activities such as curtailment, and ultimately help reduce the uncertainty projects face regarding overall feasibility.

Yukon mountain road


Local expertise helps promote project success

Hemmera’s EA teams have been on the ground for years, helping many of Canada’s largest and most challenging renewable energy projects cross the finish line. Our expertise and multi-disciplinary approach help steer projects through the complex assessment and regulatory processes on time and on budget. We also work collaboratively with stakeholders, including governments, industry, local communities, and Indigenous peoples, to deliver the best outcome for all parties.

Whatever your power project and regardless of what stage it’s in, Hemmera has the capacity and the capability to assemble the qualified, knowledgeable and experienced team required to minimize delays, smooth the path to environmental compliance, and deliver project success.

Our next article will look more closely at understanding EA commitments and how they impact construction and operation.


Our experience

Our experience Hemmera, a subsidiary of Ausenco, is a recognized leader in providing environmental support to the renewable energy sector including wind energy, solar, small hydro, run-of-river developments, and associated transmission projects. We are experienced in managing environmental reviews under BC’s Environmental Assessment Act, Alberta’s Hydro and Electric Energy Act, Yukon’s Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Act, and the Impact Assessment Act. We have also completed many joint reviews and audits of proposed and operational projects.

Our team of experts are ready to help, reach out to Mike Peckford or Charlie Palmer to learn more. 


Other articles in the series:

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Understanding environmental risks early in a project and planning for successful operation

Written by: Mike Enright, Business Leader, Environmental Planning and Ecology

While no two renewable projects are the same, including their environmental and permitting requirements, there are similar themes that arise during the approval, construction and operation of most Canadian wind and solar projects that require careful management. Using an experienced team and pro-active approaches that successfully address these themes, Hemmera works collaboratively with renewable energy firms to solve complex environmental legislation, stakeholder and project design challenges.

The renewable energy team at Hemmera has observed the development life cycle of projects play out many times over the past two decades in different regulatory jurisdictions and have developed successful strategies to overcome project risks — both real and perceived. Early environmental investigations and discussions with regulators as well as local stakeholders in advance of undertaking the formal approvals process is often critical to the success of a project.

The specific challenges faced by a particular project can vary by fuel type, generating capacity of a component, project geographic extent, environmental values in the surrounding landscape and host community. Using fuel type as a basic example, wind projects tend to have a small area of direct impact on wildlife habitat but concern over possible direct impacts to birds and bats during operation are often points of contention. Similarly, turbine noise and shadow flicker require study in the context of the surrounding community. In contrast, solar facilities comprise a larger physical footprint and thus have the potential for greater direct impact on existing wildlife habitat but concern during operation (i.e., mortality events) is much less. The earlier in the development cycle that developers understand their project’s environmental risks, the more flexibility there is in how potential issues can be resolved with the local community and regulators.


Benefits of early planning and strategies for overcoming risks

Incorporating environmental attributes into the development process as early as possible is critical to improving the success of the project. We regularly see project developers underestimate a potential risk only to have it become an unnecessary hurdle later in the development process. Undertaking small but strategic preliminary studies as early in the process as possible can have a profound positive effect on the approval schedule as well as reduce permitting and engineering costs. A pro-active environmental permitting strategy can assist with improving community sentiment and translate into social license for the project. It also helps to identify possible issues that require consultation with regulators in advance of submitting supporting documentation.

Understanding possible environmental design constraints during site prospecting is one of the best ways to abate environmental risks. Understanding environmental constraints helps inform the size of facility that can likely be realized (i.e. generating capacity) and the development of a sound strategy around permitting. A well thought out permitting strategy often has the benefit of increasing the efficiency of other project tasks which follow, saving time and money.

Where a site is already identified, environmental information collected early can inform preliminary design thus avoiding costly redesigns of key project component later in the approvals process when the design has been subject to greater investment. Where environmental attributes cannot be avoided, alternatives and mitigation to minimize or control the effects can be developed. A design that considers environmental constraints and demonstrates avoidance measures can reduce future permitting and approval efforts and tends to expedite regulatory support.

Whether during site prospecting or once a development site has been identified, a good understanding of possible environmental issues can bring to light regulatory requirements or commitments that may need to be agreed to for the purpose of complying with certain legislation. Understanding these commitments early help refine strategies to de-risk the project. One example is a wind facility proposed near bat habitat. Depending on the outcome of the environmental assessment, the resulting mitigation measures could include some form of operational curtailment, which could impair the economics of the project. Understanding the intricacies of possible mandated or voluntary strategies that could reduce the project’s effect on bats but also influence energy production during operation, are critical to the project’s business case.

Early engagement with the community and regulators with an ability to demonstrate an understanding of project specific environmental attributes builds trust. Early information sharing can go a long way in diffusing potential issues that maybe weren’t apparent when the project site was initially chosen. Open and informed engagement with the community that show consideration of environmental attributes can assist other efforts to build community support for the project.


Expertise to solve complex problems

The team at Hemmera has helped many renewable energy projects move from blueprint to full operation by navigating these complexities. At Altagas’ Bear Mountain Wind Park, a 34-turbine, 102 MW wind energy facility in northeastern BC, being the first commercial project to deliver wind-powered electricity to the BC power grid brought many challenges. The community was very supportive of the project. They were the catalyst for the project and the first to invest in bringing the project to market. However, the absence of a track record for wind energy in forested BC led to many regulatory concerns that could not be overcome using information from other projects in very different parts of North America.

Our team managed the Environmental Assessment and proposed an adaptive management strategy that committed to mitigation if certain thresholds of effect on birds and bats were reached during the project’s operation period. This avoided the need for AltaGas to commit to costly and potentially unnecessary mitigation before they proved to be necessary. Our adaptive approach provided biological data for improved decision-making, addressing uncertainty over mitigation requirements and reducing the costs associated with mitigation, while at the same time providing regulators with the assurance that appropriate mitigation would be applied should the effects require it. The Bear Mountain turbines began operation in 2009 and currently generate enough renewable electricity to power most homes in BC’s South Peace region.

Since the completion of the Bear Mountain Project, our team has completed dozens of other projects across Canada. We are proud of our work and commitment to help companies do their part to increase Canada’s use of renewable energy resources in the most sustainable way possible.

In the next article, we’ll discuss the important regional differences that organizations need to consider when preparing for and advancing through the approvals process.


Our experience

Hemmera, a subsidiary of Ausenco, is a recognized leader in providing environmental support to the renewable energy sector including wind energy, solar, small hydro, run-of-river developments and associated transmission projects. Our talented, dedicated and experienced professionals help organizations steer projects through the complex environmental assessment and regulatory processes – on time and on budget. We are experienced in managing reviews in several provinces and territories and have also completed many joint reviews and audits of proposed and operational projects.


Our team of experts are ready to help, reach out to
 Mike Enright to learn more. 


Other articles in the series:

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Understanding your EA commitments and how they impact construction and operation

Written by: Charlie Palmer, Practice Leader, Environmental Impact Assessment and Mike Peckford, Business Leader, Atlantic Canada/National Lead Renewable Energy 

A critical part of the environmental assessment (EA) process for renewable energy projects is providing commitments around protecting the environment through all phases of project development, and through to operation. Compliance with these commitments is usually underpinned by legislative requirements, and while there is a financial cost to achieve compliance, there are bigger costs and risks to relationships with Indigenous nations, regulators and stakeholders if owners do not comply with their commitments.

How EA commitments are written is also critical since they will become the benchmark by which a project’s environmental performance is measured and monitored for years to come. Part of our work at Hemmera is helping our clients put forward EA commitments that achieve the environmental goals, yet are also pragmatic for implementation. Knowing what owners are agreeing to is important so that the terms can be built into contracting and procurement processes, and the costs can be incorporated into project financing.

In this article, we discuss some of the EA commitment hurdles project owners can encounter during the renewable energy project development cycle, as well as time and resource saving ideas to reduce risk.


The four project stages and why knowledge transfer between them is critical

Most renewable energy projects are broken into four development stages: 1. permitting/approval, 2. construction, 3. operation and maintenance, and 4. decommissioning or repowering.

EA commitments are developed and approved in the initial permitting/approval phase based on agreements to protect physical, biological and social environmental values during the subsequent construction, operation and decommissioning/repowering phases. The biggest risks we’ve seen when guiding clients through the project life cycle are the loss of information and knowledge when moving from one phase to the next, particularly when new proponent teams or new project partners specializing in the new phase are bought onto the project to replace the previous team. Due to these inherent risks, we always advise giving deep consideration to the commitments that were previously made in advance of moving from one phase to the next in a project’s life cycle.

Hemmera Project - Wind turbines


When a commitment becomes problematic

At Hemmera, we understand the types of EA commitments that might become problematic. Flagging them before they become part of a signed agreement is critical. Below are some of the themes we’ve noticed in problematic EA commitments:

Too specific: Some EA commitments are too prescriptive and leave little or no room for flexibility. Changes are inevitable as you construct and operate a project so there has to be some element of flexibility in your commitments to allow for adaptation.

Too open-ended: Alternatively, we’ve seen EA commitments that are too broad and which can leave proponents exposed during compliance checks. It’s best to include specific metrics in commitments, including limits and the associated contingency actions should they not be reached.

Unfinished commitments: Perhaps worse than being too specific or too broad is inexpertly deferring tasks required to develop a commitment to later phases in the development process. Saving time or money during the approval phase, pending information to be obtained later, is an acceptable approach and sometimes necessary for addressing uncertainty. Still, you must build in safeguards such as describing the future process and committing all required parties to that process. Expect to give a little for the flexibility you’re granted if you choose one of these types of commitments.

Relying on others: Some commitments mistakenly rely either entirely or partially on third parties to fulfill a promise, such as a landowner clearing their property, or a contractor completing a project by a certain deadline. If there’s no way to enforce these third-party promises, the onus is always on the project owner to find and fund the solution, no matter the time or cost.

Unachievable: In some cases, commitments made are simply not achievable. We’ve seen commitments to relocate infrastructure in the event of not meeting a target. This type of commitment is enormously expensive and impractical. Anything considered impractical or fiscally irresponsible should be avoided.

Project owners need to have a team of experienced developers and consultants who understand the entire life cycle of a project to carefully develop and manage each of the EA commitments.

Solar


Keeping projects on track

Hemmera not only helps project owners develop appropriate commitments during the permitting and approval phase, we also work to keep them on track during the subsequent phases. We’ve been involved in projects from feasibility and approval phases through to construction and operation and even in the re-powering of projects. With this experience, we’ve developed a keen sense of commitments that are workable and those that are not. During the handover between development phases, we recommend the compilation and maintenance of an environmental management system — a framework designed to help owners keep on top of their commitments as they move from one project phase to the next. Knowing and understanding your commitments, when they’re due and who’s responsible, is essential. You need a clear understanding of what needs to be done and by whom so that you, your contractor, or consultant does not drop the ball!

Our next article looks at involving the host community in your project, including the importance of relationship-building with project stakeholders including communities, Indigenous peoples, regulators, and other project partners.


Our experience

Hemmera, a subsidiary of Ausenco, is a recognized leader in providing environmental support to the renewable energy sector including wind energy, solar, small hydro, run-of-river developments, and associated transmission projects. For more than two decades, our talented, dedicated and experienced impact assessment teams have supported many of Canada’s largest and most challenging projects. Our depth of experience and multi-disciplinary approach allow us to steer projects through the complex assessment and regulatory processes – on time and on budget.


Our team of experts are ready to help, reach out to
Mike Peckford or Charlie Palmer to learn more. 

Other articles in the series:

Back to Renewables homepage