With net zero targets on the horizon and a race to global decarbonization, the Canadian energy transition — and the critical clean energy projects that are powering it — are in progress like never before. Some say the energy sector in Canada is expected to change more in the next decade than it has in the past century. With this in mind, our recent webinar featured a panel of experts working in the field. Panelists were implored to have an in-depth discussion on how to overcome construction challenges and manage environmental risks for clean energy projects.

According to the Canadian Renewables Energy Association, Canada will need 10 times more wind and solar energy, supported by energy storage, to reach net-zero greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2050. For its part, the federal government committed nearly $3 billion to the Smart Renewables and Electrification Pathways Program in Budget 2023, along with an estimated $26 billion for the Clean Electricity Investment Tax Credit. This program is supporting the transition to a net-zero economy as well as Canada’s commitment to meeting Clean Electricity Regulations objectives.

As for the private sector, it’s also ramping up investments to meet the demands, including enhanced partnerships between governments and the private sector. The Canada Infrastructure Bank has made investment announcements of almost $9 billion to support more than 37 projects.

So it’s going to get interesting real fast. The transformation is underway and is influenced by an emerging array of technologies, policies, and regulations.

There’s no doubt that decarbonization will focus on the phasing out carbon-emitting electricity generation and increasing non-emitting sources, such as renewables. However, it’s challenging to predict exactly how it will unfold, with several questions surrounding the construction of clean energy projects:

  • How do we address the pain points involved in developing these types of projects?
  • What are proven strategies for satisfying due diligence, meeting construction deadlines, and providing successful outcomes?
  • How can certain best practices evolve the process, provide greater efficiencies, and foster more responsible partnerships with local and Indigenous communities?

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 communities across Canada.

Travers Solar Project - Alberta Major Projects

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. (Credit: Government of Alberta.)

Corinne Lynds, VP of content and partnerships at Actual Media Inc., kicked off the conversation by asking the panelists which renewable energy technologies they think will play the strongest role in driving decarbonization.

“There’s tons of exciting technologies, tons of exciting progress in the space in nuclear, in CCUS [Carbon Capture, Usage and Storage], in different applications that show a ton of promise for the future. But I think the most important tons of carbon dioxide that we can take out of the atmosphere today are ones that are readily realizable by renewable energy projects. And that’s wind and solar projects,” said Scott Perry, VP of development at Leeward Renewable Energy, LLC, who has worked on Canada’s largest solar project to date, the Travers Solar facility in Lomond, Alberta.

Profile photo of Scott Perry

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

However, Perry said the technology that is going to lead to the greatest decarbonization for our electricity system today is actually the transmission system. “Connecting generation with load is paramount to the way our electricity grid is set up today. That transmission system is not built to carry the types of electrons that we have with wind and solar, and it needs change, it needs further investment, it needs further build-out to facilitate a successful decarbonization.”

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Claudia Gomez, practice lead of environmental sciences and planning at Matrix Solutions Inc. concurred with Perry’s comment, but she assesses the situation from a regional perspective. “The technology that is implemented is going to vary across the regions in Canada. There are different dominant technologies depending on the resources that are available in those regions.”

Alberta-based Gomez noted they are fortunate to have the climatic conditions needed for wind and solar. In other parts of the country, though, there are variable resources, such as water abundance in British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec, so hydro plays a dominant role. Hydrogen, nuclear, and geothermal are also part of the mix of technologies across the country, added Gomez.

Profile photo of Claudia Gomez

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

For Alex Sadvari, environmental lawyer and partner at Gowling WLG, storage is the key to dealing with intermittent sources of energy. She explained the need for storage accompanying both the wind at the source and also the need for  large, pumped storage systems.

“A lot of jurisdictions are considering this right now,” said Sadvari. “Hydrogen is the glamorous one, but there are different types of hydrogen. Green hydrogen is great, but it’s the most expensive, and so I think it’s going to be interesting to see how that unfolds.”

Factors for managing project risks and challenges

With any type of clean energy project, there are bound to be risks that need to be managed. How can these risks be optimally managed?

Delanie Player, principal wildlife biologist and power sector lead at Matrix Solutions Inc. recommends early engagement for project planning. Player pointed out that it’s important that project risks or constraints are properly identified upfront. “If they’re not identified upfront when you’re trying to develop these projects, they tend to follow you throughout permitting, construction, and even operations. I’ll use wetlands as an example. At times projects will want to develop within wetlands or closely adjacent to wetlands,” explained Player.

“The wetlands serve multiple purposes. We’re not just protecting wetlands for the sake of protecting wetlands; we’re also protecting them to manage surface water flows as well as to support wildlife. So, once you start potentially encroaching on those wetlands, you may have to do more work to understand what’s using those wetlands. You may need to think about different ways of designing to manage the changes in water flows that might come from being in close proximity to those wetlands. And through construction you may have other issues that come up. For example, the wetlands may actually be hosts to important wildlife or wildlife species at risk.”

Gomez agreed that selecting suitable lands from the start and evaluating potential problems early on is really critical, and added her perspective as a soils specialist. “We’re advancing the technologies and the equipment that can be used for construction of these sites, but the less that you disturb through grading or whatever is required, the better for your reclamation outcomes at the end of the project. Also, it makes a significant impact to reducing some of the costs for construction on these projects. Those are other things to also keep in mind at the design stage.”

Sadvari said she wished that legal clients would call her at the very beginning of the process, “but they often call me when there’s a problem. I think it often stems from not doing that early on identification of all the potential risks in evaluating a bunch of different sites and making sure that you’ve chosen the right one.”

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Alex Sadvari, Environmental Lawyer and Partner, Gowling WLG. 

She raised the nature of the environmental regulatory system, which exists at every level —federal, provincial, regional, and local — and how it’s very complaints-based and can block activity at the stage where project teams are trying to get approvals.

“During construction and operation, if you have an environmental compliance approval, or any kind of approval, the regulators are going to get involved when people complain.”

She advises to address concerns about environmental impacts, and possible noise and odour issues and work together with local communities and Indigenous groups. “You don’t want to end up with complaints down the road, which will cause a small environmental problem to become a problem forever,” she cautioned.

With respect to selecting the site, Gomez warns that not everything is going to be foreseen when you’re at those initial stages. “Seriously consider having environmental inspectors or monitors on site during construction who could be proactively looking for changing conditions, such as erosion or the creation of dust. Having a monitor there can give you the heads-up of what might be coming down the road so you can proactively manage some of those issues, so they don’t become big issues.”

Perry concurred about the importance of doing due diligence, but conceded that there’s always an element of the unknown. “It almost doesn’t matter what project you’re on, you’re going to come across some obstacle that you did not foresee when developing a project, so make sure that you have the right resources to pull on.” He recommends legal and environmental specialists to help the construction team understand the risks, what potential alternatives are, and how to make a prudent investment.

“Too often in our business we make choices for that day, that quarter, that year. Taking into account the longevity of some of these assets in our accounting of how we deal with those unforeseen problems is crucial,” emphasized Perry.

Lessons learned and best practices to employ

Panelists were implored to share their lessons learned on past projects and the best practices for the path forward.

Perry shared his experience with a run-of-river project called “Forrest Kerr”, which is the result of a partnership with the Tahltan First Nation in Northwestern British Columbia, making sure there are no impacts to local fish communities.

The Forrest Kerr Hydroelectric Project, operated by AltaGas, is a 195MW run-of-river hydroelectric project located on the Iskut River in British Columbia, approximately 1,000 km north-west of Vancouver, British Columbia. (Credit: BV River)

Perry explained that it was important to understand migratory fish patterns and spawning fish and where they come from the coast, particularly steelhead trout, and placing the facilities at high enough elevations where we’re not in migratory paths. “We worked with our First Nation partner and a number of environmental consultants before we started to understand that there were going to be no steelhead trout or no migratory fish or spawning fish in that river system when we started construction,” explained Perry.

He shared how they planned and executed a successful construction and commissioning process. However, one year after operations, as they de-watered to investigate how the facility was performing, they found one steelhead trout.

“So that was obviously of major concern. We’d never seen steelhead trout in that river before, never any indication during construction,” said Perry, so they gathered biological and environmental experts, representatives from the Federal Ministries for Lands and Oceans, and their First Nations partners. “We all got together and figured out what was really happening.”

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Turns out what happens when you divert water from the main riverbed and put it through a turbine is it gets oxygenated, and that oxygen leads to an increased food source for the fish. So while fish are in some of the lower streams, they do explore good food sources from the tributaries in new and interesting ways. That was why they found the fish. They resolved that it had never been a migratory path for fish previously. So the project wasn’t blocking a migratory path, but in fact creating a better food source for fish in that river.

“Of course, the unknown is always going to get you on projects, there will always be something I promise you, but having those resources to draw from and getting to the right outcome is always the end goal so having reliable resources is critical.”

Gomez said she is seeing a positive trend in terms of addressing concerns about vegetation and wildlife constraints and potential impacts to those resources from development. “More recently we’re hearing more about soil conservation and reclamation increasingly coming to the table and at the planning stages, which used to be more towards the end-of-life conversation for projects,” said Gomez.

She is excited to see the search or opportunities to reduce footprints, to bring in innovative equipment or technologies that will limit disturbance and set projects up for success. She credits new regulations and directives that outline best practices that can protect biophysical resources.

Sadvari added that one of the other things she’s noticing is more concerted collaboration. “There’s more collaboration between developers, environmental consultants, and the EPC [Engineering, Procurement and Construction] contractors.” She said she is finding herself more frequently at the table with the construction contractors to understand possible concerns that need to be addressed, “having proactive conversations as opposed to reactive conversations.”

Gomez added that she’s also starting to see a shift to including some of those environmental expectations and requirements right at the bidding stage, so before the EPCs are even hired, they’re aware of what sorts of things are they going to need to be watching for and planning for and pricing for moving into development of these projects. “That’s an exciting step forward for us.”

Profile photo of Delanie Player

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

“I’m also seeing more partnerships with Indigenous Peoples with deep involvement and sharing of traditional knowledge, but also just involvement in every aspect of the project as a true partnership, not just in name only, which I think was sometimes happening in the past,” said Player.

She recalled the strong opposition to wind for various reasons in the past but how that’s changing. “People know that we need clean energy. And while some may not want it in their backyard, I think there’s much more of an understanding in our society that this [energy transition] is very important. As a result, it’s usually easier to get projects through the process.”

The second part of this webinar feature will include a focus on what new technological and digital innovations are helping improve clean energy project management, next gen readiness in the clean energy economy and skill shortages to be addressed, and what emerging trends are in store for 2024.

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: https://environmentjournal.ca/enviroexchange/

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