No Policy is Bad Policy: Solar Energy and Grasslands

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Posted in:  Conservation

Recently, there has been a flurry of applications for solar power investigative licenses on crown land in the East Kootenays, with four different companies applying for tenure at ten different sites. Here at Wildsight, we’re excited to see large-scale solar power coming ever closer to economic feasibility in BC. With the year-round sunny days that we all love, the area around Kimberley and Cranbrook is a good one for solar energy, but as with everything, the devil is in the details. One particularly important detail that hasn’t been a factor in site selection is the need to protect our rare grasslands.

Solar: Part of the Solution

British Columbia generates almost all of its electricity from hydroelectric projects, many of which have had severe impacts on ecosystems, even though they are renewable and have very low carbon emissions. Yet electricity is only about 20% of our total energy use. Natural gas, oil and other fossil fuels make up the other 80%. To make serious reductions in our carbon emissions, we’ll need to use a lot less fossil fuels—and efficiency can only take us so far. We probably aren’t going to stop driving or heating our homes any time soon. What we can do is switch from natural gas to renewable electricity to heat our homes (along with efficiency upgrades), switch to electric cars and replace fossil fuels everywhere we can with electricity and other alternatives.

If we want to become real climate leaders in BC, that’s going to mean a big increase in renewable electricity generation. We live in a province with abundant renewable energy resources,  we can afford renewables, at least in comparison to most of the rest of the world, and we have a well-trained workforce to make it all happen.

And what better place to start building our solar generation capacity than right here in the sunny East Kootenay? The Cranbrook Airport is the sunniest weather station in BC and Kimberley’s Sunmine has been producing solar electricity from a former mine concentrator site just outside town for two years already.

Solar photovoltaic panels can be a remarkably low impact way to generate electricity, which is nice in a province that doesn’t have the best record on the impacts of major hydroelectric projects. The trick is putting them in the right place. Former industrial sites, old gravel pits and rooftops are all great options. Things get a little trickier when solar facilities are proposed on crown land—especially in our Rocky Mountain Trench grasslands.

A solar facility is pretty simple, essentially just a whole lot of panels facing south. The largest facilities proposed would be 15MW (Kimberley’s Sunmine is just 1MW) and cover less than half a square kilometre. To be clear, currently BC Hydro isn’t buying any new electricity until at least 2020, so we don’t expect any solar in BC for a while (except for one possible project on private land just outside Cranbrook, which has already been approved).

Kimberley Sunmine. Photo courtesy City of Kimberley

A Threat to Grasslands?

The trouble is that it makes sense to put solar facilities near transmission lines and in our area, that generally means right in the middle of the trench. Not only are there plenty of houses, highways, farms, and industrial sites already in the middle of the trench, but it is home to most of our grasslands, a rare and important ecosystem in our mostly forested corner of the province. Not only are our grasslands important as winter range for elk, deer and other ungulates, but they are home to grassland-dependent species like long-billed curlew, Lewis’ woodpecker, badger and more. With our over-zealous fire suppression in the trench over many decades, areas that burned regularly have become ingrown with trees, making our grasslands even more rare. A solar facility in the wrong place, with its tall fences for electrical safety, could have an outsized impact in our rare grasslands.

With this difficult balancing act between grasslands and solar, you might think we’d be considering crown land investigative licenses for solar power pretty carefully. You’d be wrong. BC doesn’t even have a set of criteria to consider solar power projects, instead evaluating them under the rules for wind power projects, which have very different impacts and scales. And with six investigative applications already accepted in the trench between Skookumchuck and Koocanusa Reservoir, mostly on prime grasslands, the situation isn’t looking great.

On top of everything, there is a strange irony at play: if we don’t make drastic changes to slow climate change, our area will become hotter and that means we’ll have a lot more grassland in decades to come. Some projections for 2080 even have grassland ecosystems across most of the trench and right into the centre of the Purcells in lower elevation valleys like the St. Mary’s.

At Wildsight, we’re working with a coalition of other groups and individuals concerned about our grasslands to make sure solar facilities aren’t built in the wrong places—and to push government to adopt specific criteria to evaluate solar proposals. Because once investigative licenses are granted, companies start spending money. And if those licenses are in the wrong places, we lock in future conflict over our grasslands.

There is no doubt that solar power is an important part of the climate change puzzle, but as with any puzzle, the pieces need to be put in the right place.