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.
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:
- Regional Differences in Environmental Assessments for Renewables
- Understanding your EA commitments and how they impact construction and operation