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If you’ve driven through rural Alberta in recent years, you’ve likely seen a new landscape feature: massive windmills and sprawling solar farms. Even as rural Alberta continues to support Alberta’s traditional economic drivers such as oil and gas, agriculture, and forestry, it is simultaneously become one of the world’s foremost sites for renewable energy development.
Rural Alberta’s large open spaces combined with a windy and sunny climate put it at the forefront of Canada’s renewable energy transition. This emergence provides rural municipalities with a great opportunity to host renewable energy projects, along with some big challenges!
Jason Schneider has lived those opportunities and challenges in recent years. Jason is Reeve of Vulcan County, located in southern Alberta and a hotbed of renewable energy investment. Vulcan County’s economy has historically been based around oil and gas and agriculture. Reeve Schneider explained that this has left the county and its residents vulnerable to swings in commodity prices. When oil and crop prices are up, the county booms, but when prices are down, the county struggles. The influx of renewable energy investment has helped the county and many of its landowners smooth out some of those ups and downs. It ensures that even if oil prices are down or the crops are not growing, revenues are still flowing in the form of tax revenue for the county and rents for landowners. As Reeve Schneider explains, from the municipal perspective, renewable energy diversifies and stabilizes that tax base. It also helps to future-proof the municipality and rural residents.
For Vulcan County council, capitalizing on their unique renewable energy potential took some change in approach to allow investment from a new sector. It meant working with industry to help residents understand the benefits of allowing windmills or solar panels on their land. It required an amendment to planning and land use requirements to ensure that the new asset types complied. It also required municipal council and staff learn about the land use and planning challenges associated with renewable energy projects. These efforts have proved worthwhile and have led to major new developments for the county.
As Alberta’s economy and the world’s energy needs continue to shift, rural Alberta is in a unique and crucial position. Rural municipalities provide municipal governance to about 85% of the province’s land mass. This means planning and development efforts will continue to be at the forefront of supporting Alberta’s existing resource economy based around oil and gas, forestry, and agriculture, while simultaneously ushering in a rapidly growing renewable energy sector. Moving forward, the rural skyline will include both pumpjacks and windmills.