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EDITORIAL: Don't leave public in the dark on solar farm

It's time for council to shed some light on the details.

Nothing makes a taxpayer nervous like a mayor who says a $26.1-million project in our community is a great idea even if it only breaks even. Especially when that $26.1 million is borrowed, and the approval comes mere days after our city eyes 20 years of tax hikes to cover a shortfall in funds just for RMR (money to repair, maintain, and replace existing infrastructure).

It's not clear what the city will pay to service that debt, meaning the $26.1 million could climb to more than the total $33.75 million the city is looking to borrow – the estimated cost plus 25-per-cent contingency.

The model may well be proprietary, as the city would have taxpayers believe, given the number of in-camera hours spent in discussion over how to spend taxpayers' cash without them raising a fuss. Even that's a tough sell, given that the solar farm would be built on city land with nary a direct competitor in sight. The site on Villeneuve Road, in use today as our compost yard, was acquired as the Badger Lands in the early 2000s and is now worth many times its purchase price.

Unless council has a secret power purchase agreement (PPA) tucked in its back pocket for when the project is completed in 2023, the way future solar-farm earnings are calculated should be public knowledge. 

So, where does a resident go to find that information?

Sadly, several Google searches, and then several more on the City of St. Albert's website, reveal little to no detail on the project. 

Given the scope of the solar farm, it's baffling why more information hasn't been made available to the public. Council is spending our money, after all. And the borrowing bylaw comes back to council for approval Aug. 30.

Plenty of St. Albertans would love nothing more than to show pride in a city that takes its environmental projects seriously, but,not at any cost. Without a clear business case, this can look more like green-washing than an eco project that makes good sense. After all, it’s also being promoted as a revenue generator to take pressure off property taxes. In that case, there are opportunity costs that must be examined before any final decisions are made.

The solar farm will be situated on valuable urban land, centrally located as the city grows north and west, with excellent transportation links (Ray Gibbon Drive and Fowler Way).

It's likely that other types of development – non-residential or residential – would produce a larger revenue stream for the city with no risk to taxpayers and create employment opportunities for St. Albert residents, too. 

Has anyone asked why most Alberta solar farms are located south of Calgary in rural settings?

Since when does borrowing millions of dollars on behalf of the corporation you manage – the City of St. Albert – mean keeping its shareholders – taxpayers – in the dark?

Taxpayers deserve no less than full disclosure of a comprehensive business plan for the proposed solar farm and an extensive public engagement process preceding any approval. No word on either of those at this time.

Perhaps council's reason for keeping us in the dark is that there may truly be a devil lurking in those details.

Editorials are the consensus view of the St. Albert Gazette's editorial board.

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