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RDEK debates solar power, land use

The Sun Mine, a solar power generating facility in Kimberley, has been in operation since 2015. - Townsman file photo
The Sun Mine, a solar power generating facility in Kimberley, has been in operation since 2015.
— image credit: Townsman file photo

The RDEK grappled with a referral from the province over the issue of a solar power company using regional land to collect data on the feasibility of setting up a solar power generating facility.

The board of directors moved to approve the referral from SB Solar Holding Corp., which didn't gain enough votes. Then, the board tried to vote it down, with the vote tally ending in a tie, meaning that it was defeated.

"We pretty much stuck ourselves in the mud," RDEK board chair Rob Gay said. "We didn't support the application, nor were we against it."

At issue is the use of the land, which involves five 10-metres squared areas to collect scientific data. Sites include Elko, Galloway, Rosen Lake, Norbury Lake and McGinty Lake all situated on Crown land.

The issue touched off a debate between those who wanted to allow the company the opportunity to collect data, while others were concerned about the impact of a 10-metre squared data collection area in ecologically sensitive areas such as McGinty Lake.

"Our residents and some of the clubs in the area are calling this a land grab," said Gay. "So they see all these applications, we've had about five and we'll probably see more because of the amount of sunlight we get in our area — we're the best are in British Columbia for this so obviously we're going to get more demand."

Gay singled out McGinty Lake and Norbury Lake as areas that are unfit to house solar panels.

"Norbury Lake is adjacent to a provincial park, high use winter wildlife area, high recreation use," Gay said. "I just do not see, in my lifetime, a solar panel there. It just doesn't fit the environment, so why give this company an opportunity to go study it? McGinty Lake is another example — it's got some of the rarest endangered grasslands in Canada. We wouldn't put solar panels on that so why even go there to start with?"

In the end, the board voted to ask the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations to send a representative to the board explaining the licensing  process and to answer land-use questions.

Gay noted that collecting scientific data is a good thing, but what happens after, in terms of how a solar power generating facility is approved and built, especially if the land is within the Agricultural Land Reserve, raises questions.

"I'm certainly not against [the] industry, but some of these areas I know very well and I think there are very much higher uses than to put solar panels on that property."

Kimberley Mayor Don McCormick has an idea the issues around solar power generation, given the success of the Sun Mine — a solar-power facility on old Sullivan Mine lands — in Kimberley.

"I think the fact that we now have four or five of these [applications] and it's getting a little more frequent is sparking questions about what is being investigated and once that data is collected, what does it mean and where does it go from here?" McCormick said.

McCormick disputes the perception that some people may have of solar facilities in desert areas of the U.S. that feature hectares and hectares of solar panels.

"The fact is, they do things like that there because they can, it is the desert, but that's not the kind of thing we're talking about here, it is different as we see in Kimberley with the Sun Mine."

It's well documented that the East Kootenay region is one of the sunniest areas of the province, and that is attracting more and more interest from solar companies, said McCormick.

"There's going to be big expansion of solar in Southern Alberta in the not too distant future," said McCormick, "and if we can, on the front end, develop a cluster — the kind of cluster that can attract product and service companies here and real jobs here — it's an opportunity not just to service a small industry here, but to expand service into Alberta when that gets up and running as well.

"And we're not talking about tomorrow; we're talking about a five-ten year plan on how this is going to unfold, but there's a huge opportunity for us here, from an economic development point of view."

The province has jurisdiction over approving the licenses, not the regional district. If a company feels that there is potential to set up a solar power generating facility, then the RDEK would get another chance to give their input.

 

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