By Cole Parkinson
It’s been a long time coming, but the two RenuWell pilot projects in the Municipal District of Taber are near the goal line. As a way to update partners and the public, a ribbon cutting and presentation was held last week. While the ribbon cutting was cancelled due to the weather, the crowd gathered at the Heritage Inn to hear about where RenuWell was at.
“The reason I got started on this is because of the oil battery right by our farm. My dad operated this oil battery for 10, 15 years,” explained Keith Hirsche of RenuWell. “That battery is shutting down — it’s been in operation since the 1940s and it was a pilot project. That field ended up being a pilot for different recovery schemes and it ended up producing 45 or 50 per cent of the oil that was in the ground. Now, CNRL who owns it, has said it’s the end of the line, so it’s closing down.”
This is not the only case of oil/gas wells shutting down across southern Alberta. Stemming from this, Hirsche had the idea to place small-scale solar projects on abandoned wells.
“Some of the sites that are less important for agriculture, and if they’re close to infrastructure, these are some great targets for looking at how we might produce energy needed into the future,” he continued. “There are hundreds of wells, both on the M.D.’s land and also private landowners, where the old companies have avoided their responsibilities. It has created a tremendous problem throughout the municipality.”
And with electricity costs continuing to increase due to transmission up charging, the more small-scale projects can help.
“LaRon Torrie identified 20 years ago this incredible cost escalation that has happened to electricity users in the province. When transmission lines are built for these projects, that transmission line is paid by us to use electricity,” he continued. “At the time LaRon put this update together in 2020, it was five cents for electricity — that price didn’t change at all. Distribution and transmission increased to be twice that price, so it went to 18 cents. In Alberta, we are paying high electricity prices — it’s not because of the energy, it’s because of the delivery cost and that’s all going out of province. For example, AltaLink is owned by Berkshire Hathaway Energy, Warren Buffet’s company. Fortis is also owned internationally. These are the companies that are being paid to carry that energy from a generator to your house, but they are guaranteed 8.5 per cent profit. The more they build — they don’t get a bigger profit margin — but they get bigger profit and that is all leaving the province and country. This is what we’re up against.”
While big projects have been developed in the area, smaller solar could be a huge benefit. While many might believe more power is needed in the winter, Hirsche explained these projects could be crucial during the hotter months.
“With irrigation, the summer time use is higher for electricity in southern Alberta than winter. Solar puts out most of the energy in the summer, so it’s a great offset for irrigation. One of the issues is, because we want to keep the price low, if we have to go to these big projects, we need land allocation. All of the municipalities are weighing their responsibility to be good stewards of the land and use the land in the most appropriate way — as opposed to for the long-term and what will make the most money now.”
Another concern municipalities have expressed, especially with large-scale solar, is reclamation at the end of life.
“If you cover up a 2,000-acre site with solar panels, and sometime down the road technology changes, how are you going to use that land for something else?” asked Hirsche. “Municipalities are trying to work with developers to say ‘yes, we understand you want to build a project, and yes that’s good for us. Also, we want to make sure it’s the best land possible and not use prime irrigation land or prime ecosystem.’ The solar companies are saying ‘we want to be close to the transmission and close to the substation. We don’t really care about your land use.’ Then there’s the whole struggle with the province from this 30,000-foot level, saying this is what they want, but they really aren’t connected to what’s happening here in the local region. How does it affect you, your neighbours, and the ecosystem?”
With so much land taken up by inactive and abandoned wells, RenuWell sees a great opportunity to repurpose that land while also providing energy. And while large-scale projects may look like the biggest opportunity to provide tons of energy, Hirsche explained their approach could be a game changer for Alberta.
“If we took 25 per cent of the inactive wells in the M.D. of Taber, most of them connected to power lines, most of them have roads in place, and if we use one-quarter of those inactive sites we can generate the same power as Travers. And without disturbing anymore land or taking any land from agriculture.”
As of right now, the two pilot projects have seen the vast majority of construction completed. But supply chain issues are still being felt as they await a few more pieces of the puzzle.
“Shortly after our funding announcement, COVID was announced. That caused a variety of problems and among the most significant were supply chains. It certainly affected our project in terms of cost escalation, time delays, and all kinds of problems as well as labour shortages. COVID caused a variety of problems for us and it was probably the worst time to start a solar project,” he said. “Our transformers are being built in China and they have been delayed again. They are the last piece to come and they are supposed to be here this week, and now we have another four weeks if we’re lucky.”
But as of right now, their plans for more projects are hanging in the balance. Due to provincial regulations around small-scale solar, the future isn’t quite as clear as RenuWell would like.
“The guideline when we started this was going to be 25 weeks to get connections through. It took over a year and if Fortis didn’t go beyond — they did the best they could — because if we would have went to AltaLink, we’d still be waiting for approval to connect,” stated Hirsche. “There are no technical rules of why these projects are different from micro gen if we stay under five megawatts. If we can get that same process through utilities, this could be transformative. But without them, we don’t have a runway and no way to move forward. The bad news is we’re stuck. The good news is there is a pretty simple fix. It’s not that we need a new technology — we need somebody to take a pen and change one rule and we would have a game changer.”
Other partners in attendance also made some comments about the project up to this point.
“It’s been four years — it was Christmas of 2018 and it was right between Christmas and New Year’s when we arranged for Keith to come to the office. He had all sorts of questions for us that we couldn’t answer. We started working together and got some grants to figure out taxation and assessment, and regulatory environment that he would have to work through to get this project off the ground,” stated M.D. of Taber Reeve Merrill Harris. “The M.D. of Taber supported this project for a few reasons — firstly, we have a serious problem with abandoned and orphaned oil and gas wells. By repurposing some of these wells into small-scale solar projects, this has the effect of expediting the cleanup of some of these wells. This can be accomplished without taking additional lands out of agricultural production. By using abandoned or inactive oil and gas sites, we are providing land that has already been taken out of agriculture production.”
“When this opportunity came to us, I am really glad I saw this foresight that we would like to partner on this — particularly because I think it is a fantastic repurposement of these orphaned well sites,” said David Westwood, general manager of St. Mary River Irrigation District. “I think it’s kind of tragic they have been abandoned and these landowners need to deal with it. Now it can have a good second life for land that was taken out of agriculture purpose and now for another good resource.”
Others were intrigued by the idea and were excited at what could be accomplished.
“When (Keith) first brought the vision of the site, we thought ‘huh, we are having trouble getting these sites reclaimed, and repurposing them. This makes too much sense. Why has no one thought of this before?’ Landowners, between us and the government, it’s generally ‘okay, these are the rules and how we generally deal with these things’ and it seems like they are always vetting them to be more in favour of energy companies’ favour than ours. I have to commend the political willingness to work with everyone to proceed forward,” said Ron Huvenaars, chairman of the Action Surface Rights.
“We need to have more projects like this coming online so that people can feel empowered to make that transition,” added Luisa Da Silva, executive director of Iron and Earth. “This helps communities, particularly remote communities become self-sustaining. And it is part of truth and reconciliation here in Canada that we can provide independence to Indigenous communities.”
Another portion of the project revolved around Medicine Hat College which provided training for 15 energy sector and Indigenous workers for the renewable energy industry.
“I was honoured to be asked to take part in this. I consulted with Iron and Earth to be a part of this and I was really happy to be involved,” David Restoule, MHC Indigenous student specialist. “This is something that has given me a lot of pride to be able to do this in my life. So, I want to thank you Iron and Earth and all of the other partners.”
For more information on the RenuWell project, visit http://www.renuwell.ca/