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Candidate Q&A: MEC, Badger Lands solar farm

St. Albert municipal candidates weighed in on two large projects coming to council in the near future.

Send us your election questions
The Gazette has reached out to all St. Albert candidates with a list of 12 questions, and the answers will run in The Gazette each week as the Oct. 18 election approaches. Question topics touch on taxation, climate, development, funding shortfalls, business, traffic, transparency, reconciliation, the city’s Badger Lands solar-farm project, and more. Now we want to hear from you. What questions are at the top of your mind going into St. Albert’s municipal election? Email us the questions you'd like candidates to answer: [email protected].

Two big projects are potentially on St. Albert’s horizon, a solar-farm project set for the city’s Badger Lands, and a municipal energy corporation (MEC). 

If approved, the MEC would primarily draw its revenue from the solar farm, with other revenue streams, including electric vehicle charging stations, rooftop solar panels, and an energy marketing partnership with a company called Utilitynet. 

Currently, pre-construction work is being completed for the solar farm, and a concrete business case is being drafted for the MEC. Both projects will come before the newly elected council.

The Gazette reached out to all candidates running in the St. Albert municipal election to ask them how they feel about the city’s proposed MEC, and the Badger Lands solar-farm project.

Mayoral candidates had 120 words to answer the question: 

Angela Wood: I do not support the city’s proposed municipal energy corporation and the Badger Lands solar-farm project as it is currently being advanced. The financials have not been properly disclosed to the public, and based on the financials that have been disclosed, there are some serious questions about moving forward with this project. There needs to be increased due diligence before advancing ahead on either of these projects given the large financial magnitude and potential associated risk. These are major financial commitments, and the current council made these decisions blindly. We need to respect taxpayers’ dollars and respect that there are some significant risks associated with these projects which will ultimately fall to the residents of St. Albert.

Bob Russell: I am in favour of solar power generation, but it has to be well examined in terms of development cost, advance conditional sales agreements, along with consideration of other possible use of this land, which was not carried out by the administration. A developer has told me that if the contaminated land was removed and the area replaced by a lake surrounded by housing, this might well be a better use. I have told council that in addition to reviewing well-prepared cost estimates, not guesses, there is also a need to go through a vetting process that would include a “highest and best use” study by a qualified appraiser.

David Letourneau: I applaud the current administration and council for looking at non-traditional ways to increase revenue and thinking more out of the box; however, when taking a new approach, clear communication and consultation with the public is key in creating understanding and a clear vision. Without being able to see some of the financials and the full picture, I am concerned about the viability and risk. Through more traditional sources of revenue like those mentioned in the question about RMR, the city can achieve the same goal of increasing revenue that the MEC and Badger Lands solar farm project are attempting to achieve. 

Cathy Heron: As exciting as these two projects are they require due diligence. Exploring revenue sources like a solar farm or energy corporation is the responsibility of any council trying to build a vibrant community without excessive tax increases. Let me be clear, I said “exploring." "Exploring" doesn't mean “doing." We must be sure that these projects will be profitable and that we won't make the same mistakes that some others have made. The solar farm not only promises to be a revenue-generating opportunity, it also demonstrates our commitment to lowering our emissions and a greener future. Municipally-owned corporations are becoming more and more common as a tool for cities to stop relying on grants and property taxes. 

Council candidates had 80 words to answer the question:

Jennifer Cote: Though I am relieved residents will have the opportunity to provide input on the MEC should it move forward, I am very disappointed in how the solar-farm project has been handled. At this stage, we don’t have enough information to determine if the solar farm is viable because council failed to ask important questions. Going forward, residents must play an active role in deciding whether either project proceeds. These are costly initiatives and residents deserve to weigh in.

Louis Sobolewski: The solar farm is too risky and should not be pursued; therefore, without the solar farm there would be no need for a municipal energy corporation. City council refuses to acknowledge that the farm would have to operate for 20 years before it could make a profit selling power. The only way we’d make money is if we gamble that the federal government keeps its promise to provide support. Clearly council should stop wasting money on this project.

Sheena Hughes: I have serious concerns with the solar-farm financials and the assumptions used to justify the financials, which keep changing without explanation. The majority of council approved the project without concrete numbers. The majority also approved moving forward with the municipal energy corporation, even though the projected profits from the solar farm are to be absorbed into supporting the MEC administrative costs, reducing any taxpayer savings to pennies a year, which does not justify the risk to taxpayers.

Isadore Stoyko: This project is a total misuse of land that can be developed without the wild estimates that come with their reclamation costs. The project is not in the best interest of St. Albert. If it is such a good deal, where are all the investors? Total mistake to take on this project. Big no to borrowing $35 million.

Joseph Trapani: Taxing the residents for the proposed solar farm would negatively impact other low-income residents, such as people with disabilities, low-income families, and single parents, to name a few. Although, I believe that having the solar farm would address some environment concerns by reducing our carbon footprint and providing renewable energy sources. This project is being considered to minimize tax increases and generate revenue. The technology today is more efficient and would benefit all residents.

Wes Brodhead: The questions related to the municipal energy corporation and the Badger Lands solar farm speak to two different projects, yet both strive to achieve a similar end — namely generate additional revenue to reduce the tax burden on residents and businesses. Both projects require scrutiny to ensure fiscal viability and long-term success. The solar farm will generate savings for St. Albert by the city using its own generated power and thereby reduce expenditures for electrical power purchases from the grid. 

Wally Popik: Presently I am not in favour of it. I don't believe a small fish like the City of St. Albert is equipped to compete with the big fish and be able to show any profit as a municipal energy corporation. It's hard to believe we could build a solar farm that would need to sell kilowatt hours at a higher price than are presently available elsewhere and attract any takers.

Sandy Clark: I don’t believe that government should be competing with private industry. The numbers on the proposed solar farm don’t compute for me. I don’t see it generating sufficient net revenue to pay for itself without property-tax increases or enough net-new income to off-set tax implications for residents. While there are environmental benefits, St. Albert would be better served by entering into a long-term lease and allowing a private corporation to take on the financial risk of a solar farm.

Natalie Joly: I’m open to any idea that could streamline service delivery, reduce costs, or generate revenue to offset taxes. When the MEC feasibility report is complete, I will ensure that St. Albert’s best interests are prioritized in any decision. Knowing that solar panels at our transit facility are outperforming expectations, the Badger Lands project could be a significant contributor to St. Albert’s commitments to greenhouse-gas emissions reductions. Pending results of detailed designs, this project could also offset municipal costs for electricity. 

Ross Guffei: I cannot endorse any proposal without full public disclosure of the assumptions and calculations used to develop the recommendation to proceed on these projects. I question why other alternative energy-generating activities such as mini atomic power plants weren’t investigated before proposing the solar farm. As a result of lack of transparency for both the solar farm and MEC, I cannot support these projects.  

Mike Killick: I am on record in presentations to council and letters to the editor that the financial data and high-level business plan provided to date by the city and its consultants does not support the solar farm. The city’s own documentation says: “there is a risk … the sales of electrical power … will be insufficient to cover the debenture payments … any shortfall to be funded through taxes.” Yikes! No to the solar farm means no to the MEC. 

Shelley Biermanski: The city’s proposed solar farm project is an extremely large taxpayer investment with what seems little forethought in planning. Answers have been vague in both actual cost, life span, waste product to the environment, and the true return. The city has mentioned only needing to consult those that live close to the development location even as it affects every single taxpayer for years to come. Solar farms can be an eye sore, particularly in the middle of a city.

Ken MacKay: New sources of revenue are required if we are to maintain existing service and capital needs; however, both initiatives require much more due diligence, study, and community engagement before determining if it’s a direction our community will benefit from. These studies are scheduled to come back next term and it would be premature to comment in support or opposition until I have the detailed information that they will provide. 

Mike Ferguson: Both good ideas. Most readers want my view of the solar-farm project. I will lose votes for this, but I love it. In case people haven't noticed, the planet is dying. St. Albert has a motto: "Cultivate Life.” We should be putting our weight behind that. I would like to see St. Albert access the municipal-bond market and issue some 30-year debt at 1.3 per cent.

Kevan Jess: This moved forward with too much urgency and too little information. Taxpayer funds are not venture capital. If no reputable private utility partner is willing to invest, this is not a business opportunity for public money. Leveraging long-term availability of land, available incentives, and options within the Municipal Government Act to encourage private investment or public-private partnerships makes more sense than the proposal. If the proposal moves forward, it must require a new borrowing bylaw to allow citizen input.

Donna Kawahara: I'm in favour of finding sources of revenue beyond taxes. We should look deeper into these options if they could possibly offset our taxes. Some cities have been successful with these endeavours, and some have not been. It is important to figure out the common factor for those who have succeeded, and the common problem for those who failed before we commit to anything.

Gilbert Cantin: With the numbers, I am concerned we will be getting into another nice project instead of a needed project that we will subsidize for years. In private industry, a project has to be viable to proceed. On the environmental aspect clean energy always make sense. With technology advancing fast, costs are coming down so there is no rush to proceed.

Shawn LeMay: The current approach to the Badger Lands solar-farm project certainly intersects with the city’s fiscal challenges and budget shortfalls. How the previous council has navigated this thus far is certainly cause for concern. If we as a city are struggling with a shortfall, strained to pay our bills, and maintaining the standard of service delivery that taxpayers expect, then why are we going out borrowing millions to invest in a project we know little about? What is the guaranteed return on investment?

Leonard Wilkins: The city’s MEC is good because it focuses on energy projects that are typically out of reach for an individual business to go after and it provides us with an avenue to find more revenue other than public taxes. However, I oppose the solar farm as an intended source of income. If the utility companies are not willing to build them for profit, how can our city expect to make a profit?

Rachel Jones: I feel the MEC would advance St. Albert’s ability to stay on track with green energy generation and I look forward to reading the proposed business plan in early 2022. On the same thread, I think the solar-farm project is a forward-thinking development that would help our city generate revenue and avoid significant tax increases. I also like how the Town of Innisfail approached their solar farm, with a private owner/operator that struck an agreement for revenue sharing.

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