River valley solar farm not popular among most council candidates

The E.L. Smith Solar Farm does not have a lot of support from those running for Edmonton's next city council — but it's already under construction.

The Epcor project was approved by city council in October 2020, with the aim to build a roughly 51-acre solar farm adjacent to the E.L. Smith Water Treatment Plant.

Fifty-four candidates who answered the Taproot Survey question on the solar farm say they support solar power but don't like the location, which is in the river valley. Among those supporting the decision are four incumbents (Moe Banga, Tony Caterina, Sarah Hamilton, and Bev Esslinger), sticking by how they voted last year, along with a handful of others, including mayoral candidate Cheryll Watson.

The Edmonton River Valley Conservation Coalition (ERVCC) filed a legal challenge against council's decision, arguing that "this development should not happen at the expense of the river valley." The court date is on Nov. 19, where it will be determined if city council erred in not deeming the river valley location essential as per the North Saskatchewan River Valley area redevelopment plan.

"If we are successful in our judicial review in November, this issue could go back before the new mayor and city council in a new public hearing. If this happens, (they) have an opportunity to protect our river valley and vote that the project is not essential (there) and so cannot be approved for that location," ERVCC chair Kristine Kowalchuk told Taproot. "In other words, they would be requiring Epcor to put the solar farm somewhere else."

Despite the impending judicial review of council's rezoning decision, Epcor began construction in summer 2021 because it received all necessary city and provincial approvals to proceed. It expects the project to be finished in spring 2022.

An array of racks for solar panels surrounded by trees

Construction has begin on the solar farm, with the installation of solar panel racking. (Epcor)

"Solar panel racking has been installed and we anticipate beginning the solar panel installation in December 2021. Revegetation of the area is also in progress, and we are continuing to add additional plants and grasses to the area surrounding the solar farm," said a statement from Epcor. "We remain actively engaged with Enoch Cree Nation to honour their request to confer an Indigenous name on the solar farm."

Enoch Cree Nation withdrew its support for the solar farm in 2019 after archeological evidence indicated the site was once used for ceremonial purposes. Epcor and Enoch have since signed a memorandum of understanding to work together in a spirit of reconciliation.

Epcor's statement to Taproot indicates it is looking forward to "continuing to work with council on this project that provides significant benefits to the city's environmental and climate change strategy."

While an Epcor spokesperson they couldn't comment on the current court case, they did say that additional legal challenges related to an injunction application and an appeal of the city-issued development permit for the project were "withdrawn by the applicant."

Racks for solar panels, surrounded by trees with yellow leaves

A more recent view of the solar racks being set up near the E.L. Smith Water Treatment Plants (Eric Gormley/ERVCC)

As for how candidates answered Taproot's survey question about the solar farm, Kowalchuk said that she was happy to see the overall response and wasn't surprised by it.

"Many people spoke against the project going into the river valley at the public hearing, and since the decision we've learned that prior to the public hearing, city council received over 40 letters and emails opposing the project, and only a few in favour. Edmontonians made it very clear we do not want to see this project in the river valley," Kowalchuk said.

"ERVCC supports solar energy and would like to see this project go onto rooftops or onto any of the 'wide range of industrial land available to suit all industrial development needs' advertised on the City of Edmonton's website."

You can take the Taproot Survey to see how you align with the candidates on this and 29 other issues.

As of the publication of this article, 67 of the 85 candidates for mayor and council have finalized their surveys. Later answers will be added as they come in.