How can Canadian contractors overcome construction challenges and manage environmental risks for clean energy projects? We recently gathered a group of leading experts in the field to fill us in on their best practices for implementing much needed renewable energy in communities across Canada.

The webinar — sponsored by Matrix Solutions Inc., a Montrose Environmental Company — provided many interesting insights and perspectives about managing environmental risks involved in the construction process for some of the largest renewable energy projects in the country.

This is the second part of a two-part feature, with this part focusing on what new technological and digital innovations are helping improve clean energy project management and a critical look at next gen readiness for the clean energy economy.

Technological and digital innovations

Moderator Corinne Lynds, VP of Content and Partnerships at Actual Media Inc., implored the panelists to comment on how clean energy projects are evolving.

Scott Perry, VP of development at Leeward Renewable Energy Inc., kicked things off by sharing some of his favourite types of new technology and how they’ve impacted the approach to certain clean energy projects. “For solar, the school of thought previously was to try and pick a [project site] that was flat so we’d get the most exposure to the sunlight for solar panels. And if it wasn’t flat, we’d make it flat,” said Perry.

That wasn’t great for a variety of reasons, due to disruption of the soils or the wetlands and the cost factor. Today, trackers can applied and customized to the solar panels to track the sun’s path throughout the sky during the day. According to Perry, this simple change means less grading, no limited impact to any water courses, and it simplifies the overall development process.

Profile photo of Scott Perry

Scott Perry, VP of Development, Leeward Renewable Energy LLC.

“On the wind side, we used to have 500 kilowatt and one megawatt turbines that stood at maybe 115 feet tall. Today we’re talking about 120-metre hub heights in a lot of cases or larger.” Perry referenced one project site that was able to decreased to 18 turbines from 80.

“So that’s a decrease in land use, decrease in number of turbines, decrease in a lot of associated risk with a project of that size,” said Perry. “Even though we are decreasing the size and impact of that project, we’re actually getting far more energy yield out of that same project and technology’s facilitating that.”

Leeward Renewable Energy recently announced a partnership to provide solar construction automation for the White Wing Ranch project in Arizona. The automated panel mounting process reduces waste and increases efficiency in remote conditions.

“The project that we’re building in Arizona is in the middle of the desert, a great solar resource, but dangerous temperatures for working environment.” Perry explained how they’re using robotics to place panels, which reduces the need for manual labour in the middle of summer, giving people coverage from heat exposure.

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“Each jurisdiction is different. We don’t deal with 110 degrees that often here in Canada,” he said. “Every project has its own suite of unique challenges, and [new] technology is helping to address [them].”

Claudia Gomez, practice lead of environmental sciences and planning at Matrix Solutions Inc., emphasized the importance of using technology and best practices to address environmental footprints. “We help with permitting, we create environmental protection plans, and environmental evaluations. What we’re trying to impress upon our clients is that these really need to be defensible and technically sound to support them in meeting regulatory and societal expectations. In that way, we help them manage the environmental risk associated with the projects.”

Gomez pointed to the need to focus on impacts and issues such as erosion and water use, which are important to regulators and county administrations, as well as the “watchful eye of the people, the neighbors, and the communities that we’re working in.”

Profile photo of Claudia Gomez

Claudia Gomez, Practice Lead of Environmental Sciences and Planning, Matrix Solutions Inc. 

She also highlighted the benefits for clients and producers, as they work to meet their environmental, social and governance (ESG) goals in addition to trying to achieve net-zero collectively across Canada.

Alex Sadvari, environmental lawyer and partner at Gowling WLG, has provided legal expertise to Ontario Power Generation (OPG) in Ontario and to support Indigenous organizations such as Qulliq Energy Corp in Nunavut. She discussed the importance of working with a team of environmental experts.

“It’s really important to listen closely to what’s important to clients first and work from there. Ideally, I’d be involved at the very beginning of a project,” said Sadvari. “But sometimes it is obviously an environmental issue that’s already gone down the road somewhere we don’t want it to go.

She emphasized the importance of evaluating risks and figure out the best approach — with an assortment of environmental practitioners — to achieve a practical and comprehensive perspective to the project approach.

“I rely on people like Claudia and Delanie all the time. That’s an important part of what I do. Their listening and communicating are key,” said Sadvari, who explained that they collaborate to discuss how environmental risks can they be managed across the life cycle of a project all the way to the decommissioning process.

“I like working with Indigenous Peoples, especially ones who want to be really deeply involved in a project and take ownership for it,” said Sadvari, who said she’s pleased to see there’s more meaningful partnership now than in the past.

What are some of their guiding principles for managing renewable energy projects?

“From a guiding principle perspective, I think it’s important that if we know of something that we think will be a better outcome for wildlife, reclamation, soil conservation, vegetation, any of those environmental impacts in either direct project experience or from another industry,” said  Delanie Player, principal wildlife biologist and power sector lead at Matrix Solutions Inc.

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According to the new industry data from the Canadian Renewable Energy Association (CanREA), in 2023, Canada increased installed capacity by 11.2 per cent for a new total of 21.9 GW of wind energy, solar energy and energy storage. (Image credit: Getty Images)

Impacts from political uncertainty

Certain jurisdictions appear to be more welcoming to clean energy projects than others. The Alberta government, for example, is increasingly going rouge on federal energy policy and carbon pricing. Is the biggest environmental risk on clean energy projects political?

“I think it is really difficult for people to develop projects when it’s not clear what political incentives and disincentives there are going to be going forward, whether credit programs will continue to exist, whether there’ll be a moratorium on wind and solar,” said Sadvari.

Alex Sadvari, Environmental Lawyer and Partner, Gowling WLG. 

“So the political uncertainty is difficult, and I often get questions from clients about what percentage chance do you think there’ll be that this credit program will be canceled? And that’s really hard to answer and very difficult for people to invest in large scale projects and count on things when they don’t know. So yeah, I think it’s a big risk and it’s a big problem.”

Player agreed and added that it’s more difficult to manage risks when there’s uncertainty when planning your projects.

So how can stewards of clean energy effectively advocate for clean energy development in the field when policy may not align?

“I find that the public discourse around this topic sometimes gets away from scientific fact,” said Perry. “I think our individual voices and an industry voice are very powerful with government, and we should be using those voices with our local constituents, with MLAs, and making sure that the science-based approach to this particular problem is being heard, seen, and understood.”

While he agrees there are a number of issues floating around, particularly in Alberta — but also in Ontario, Saskatchewan, and other jurisdictions — making sure that the collective clean energy community understand what the concerns are of our stakeholders and really trying to bring facts to light. One example he cited is that of reclamation.

“Reclamation has been a particularly thorny issue here in Alberta with various horror stories around landowners facing potential reclamation issues in the future,” said Perry. He explained that a large amount of developers in Alberta actually post irrevocable letters of credit to their landowners for large sums of money that are non-transferable, that are specifically designed and set aside for reclamation in the event of future decommissioning. But there is confusion about this in the media and in the public awareness of such practices. “So it’s just making sure that our industry and that as professionals in that industry we’re telling the accurate story as to what’s actually going on.”

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Next gen jobs and exponential change

Is the next generation ready for the clean energy economy or are there still skill shortages to be addressed?

“The most interesting part of the clean energy transition is the scale,” said Perry. “That scale comes in terms of megawatts, in terms of infrastructure, in terms of real-life projects, but the biggest input to that is capital. Today we’re investing about a trillion dollars globally in renewable energy. IEA [International Energy Agency] just came out with an investment number to hit clean energy targets that basically needs to go to $4 trillion annually starting this year until 2035 to meet our 1.5 degrees global warming target. That is a colossal shift. That’s double the GDP of Canada all being invested in renewable energy around the world.”

“So there is absolutely is a skill shortage,” said Perry. “You see it across the industry. Hiring, retaining talent, finding subject matter experts is increasingly difficult because all that capital is looking for a home. Because the economics of these projects are real, right, it’s creating real value for shareholders ultimately in most cases. And so that capital transition to me means the rest of the economy needs to catch up.”

Profile photo of Delanie Player

Delanie Player, Principal Wildlife Biologist and Power Sector Lead, Matrix Solutions Inc.

Player said what we might see along with that from a skill shortage perspective is potentially the next generation will do things differently, perhaps through internal training or through generalist contractors.

Sadvari agreed with the potential for internal training. When she was working with Ontario Power Generation, staff was trained in order to execute a refurbishment for the first time. “You need to invest in your people in order to have the workforce that you need to do the work and then retain them after you put that investment into them. I think that maybe the importance of that will become clearer with a shortage,” said Sadvari.

“We already feel the pinch from not enough experts, specialists and generalists across the industry,” conceded Gomez. “From an environmental consulting perspective, we need to ramp up pretty quickly. We need our academic institutions to ramp up and start churning out some more fantastic talent for us to scoop up and start training. We’re in danger of playing a catch-up game if we don’t start ramping up our training and developing skills. Things are happening exponentially and you can’t really train the next generation fast enough at this point.”

To read the first part of this report, visit: https://environmentjournal.ca/clean-energy-contracting-managing-environmental-risk-for-canadas-largest-renewable-energy-projects/

To view the complete webinar panel conversation, visit: https://www.crowdcast.io/c/clean-energy-projects

Connie Vitello is editor of Environment Journal. If you’re interested in participating or sponsoring a webinar, email connie@actualmedia.ca. For further information about the EnviroExchange series, visit: EnviroExchange Webinar Series – The Environment Journal

Featured image: Canada’s largest solar facility, the Travers Solar Project in Alberta. Capable of producing 465-megawatts of power, the solar farm has been developed on approximately 3,330 acres of land located eight kilometres southwest of the Village of Lomond, in Vulcan County, just east of the Travers Reservoir. The project area has a strong solar resource and will generate clean energy over its 35+ year lifetime. Matrix Solutions supported the environmental components of the project and was brought on board early in the project lifecycle to facilitate permitting and construction. (Credit: Government of Alberta.)

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