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Residents pleased with newly released solar farm agenda report

Residents said they were relieved to see the report, but noted the long journey to scrutinize the solar farm project's viability could have been avoided.
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Residents showed up to speak on the solar farm borrowing bylaw and hear presentations at the beginning of the Aug. 30, 2021, council meeting. Some residents presented via Zoom. RACHEL NARVEY/St. Albert Gazette

St. Albert residents say they are “happy” about a recently released administrative agenda report where the city recommends council halt its solar farm project. 

According to the report — released to the public the evening of Aug. 31 — the options the city is exploring for its solar farm project would not be economically viable.  The report suggested council rescind approval for the $26.1-million solar farm project, and rescind the first reading of the project’s $33.75-million borrowing bylaw, both passed on June 21, 2021. 

Frank Vagi, a St. Albert resident and chemical engineering instructor at the University of Alberta, has spent his career specializing in utility systems and energy efficiency. 

Vagi addressed council last summer to raise concerns about the solar farm project, which he had conducted his own calculations for based off data from a Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT) solar-farm pilot project. 

He also predicted the revenue the solar farm would generate per year came up short in his calculations.

Vagi said he is “happy” the city “finally came to their senses and realized the expenses were going to far exceed the revenue.”

“That it took so long — I’m really disappointed,” Vagi said. 

He said his experience addressing council last year “was a bit frustrating.”

“They still approved [the first reading of] the borrowing bylaw and it flabbergasted me,” Vagi said. “They didn’t want to listen to anybody.”

Vagi said the pattern of projects the city approached in the past — such as waste-to-energy — showed “administration does not have the right people to do these types of projects. 

“They’re a municipality, they’re not an engineering firm, and they shouldn’t be bringing in consultants who have a vested interest in a particular outcome,” Vagi said. 

However, Vagi said he believes there has been a recent productive shift at the city, and that this report is evidence of that change, and he is hopeful the city’s new chief administrative officer and senior manager of utilities will continue down the new path.  

“I see a positive trend, that there’s some better critical thinking occurring within engineering,” Vagi said. 

Alan Luck, a citizen member of the city’s environmental advisory committee with a background in environmental engineering, said he was “happy” to read the report. 

“Administration really did their homework, and took a very logical sequenced approach to it,” Luck said.

“It’s unfortunate because … I can rough that out on a piece of paper on day one before they spent all this time going through it, but sometimes you have to go through it to figure it out,” he said, noting that grants could have proved to be a game changer in bringing the costs for the project more in line, but ultimately weren’t. 

Luck commended the city for taking a “leadership role” for its pursuit of environmental sustainability in general, giving the example of the cost the city undertook in bringing on electric buses, an initiative that required extra equipment for maintenance.  

“These are painful things that you have to go through,” Luck said. “If anything, they deserve gold stars for courage because in order to advance and make a progressive city you have to start somewhere.” 

However, in terms of the solar farm project, Luck argued the idea shouldn’t have come before council without more evidence. 

“It’s unfortunate that council spends all this time and then administration has to stand up and scrutinize what’s bad with the idea,” Luck said.

“The whole process seems somewhat flawed. It feels like throwing darts on the board.”

Malcolm Parker, a member of the public and former city councillor, addressed council last summer when the $33.75-million borrowing bylaw for the solar farm project came before council and was ultimately postponed.

Parker said it was “nice to hear” administration’s recommendation that council not proceed with the solar farm project. 

In Parker’s opinion, the city should never have pursued a solar farm project in the first place. 

“It doesn’t matter which level of government you’re talking about, I don’t think it’s their mandate to get into running businesses,” Parker said. “Their job is to do good governance … and not get into what I would call distractions.”