Canada's largest onshore wind energy project—the nearly 500-MW Buffalo Plains farm set to operate by year-end in Vulcan County, Alberta—has escaped a new provincial law that restricts and even bans renewable power generators near agriculture, but the outlook for other wind-energy projects awaiting approvals or planned is in question.  

Toronto-based Borea Construction is building the estimated $642-million project, under development by Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners, on 17,500 acres of private farmland. It calls for 83 Siemens-Gamesa wind turbines and 55 new roads, and is expected to produce about 1.5-million MW-hours of power per year. The project received a permit for its transmission interconnection in June 2022. 

Amazon agreed last November to buy 415 MW of project output for a data center and local delivery operations.

As of March 1, however, Alberta Premier Danielle Smith has directed the province utilities regulator to adopt its so-called “Agriculture First” approach when reviewing applications for renewable power projects on private and federal land—including buffer zones where new projects will no longer be permitted. The restriction followed a seven-month moratorium on project approvals while officials studied the shared use of Alberta land by agriculture and renewable energy projects. 

Utilities Minister Nathan Neudorf said the new process “has provided the clarity needed for the future” of agriculture, renewable energy companies and investors. Buffer zones of a minimum of 35 kilometers will be set to protect Alberta’s “pristine viewscapes,” the government said in a news release. In addition, developers will be responsible for reclamation costs paid directly to the province or negotiated with landowners. 

Farmers and ranchers have welcomed the changes, with the Rural Municipalities of Alberta saying they “will reduce conflicts between renewable projects, local land use plans and agricultural land preservation.” But the province has not released specifics on what is considered “protected areas” or “pristine viewscapes.” 

With the lack of detail and little discussion in advance, Alberta’s renewable energy sector felt “blindsided” by the moratorium, says Jorden Dye, director of think tank Pembina Institute's renewables unit, claiming the industry has recently experienced “an uptick” in project cancellations. “The moratorium really sent a chilling effect into the market. You can’t have confidence until the final rules are in,” he says. 

Vittoria Bellissimo, president and CEO of the Canadian Renewable Energy Association, adds that “there remains significant uncertainty and risk for investors wishing to participate in Canada’s hottest market for renewables.” 

Pembina Institute estimates that between January 2019 and Dec. 31, 2023, 3.26 GW of renewable energy was purchased through corporate power purchase agreements—enabling a total of 4.1 GW of project capacity, 12,400 gigawatt-hours per year of energy provided and $4.67 billion in capital investment.  

But more than $8 billion in renewable energy investments are now at risk, amounting to 6.3 GW of solar and wind power capacity, says a Pembina analysis, which points to a total of 111 solar and 34 wind projects proposed or awaiting approval in Alberta that could be affected  “The biggest impact in the Alberta market is not just on government but on the actual corporations and investors and that has led some to start looking at other jurisdictions.” says Dye. 

Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners also had developed the now-operating 692-MW Travers Solar farm south of Calgary, which it says is Canada’s largest solar energy facility. The firm also is co-developer with Avangrid Inc. of the 806-MW, 62-turbine Vineyard Wind offshore wind project in Massachusetts, the first such commercial scale project in the U.S. to start construction. Ten of its turbines have been installed, with five now producing power for the regional grid.

Alberta's new restrictions come as officials are set to unveil a design later this year to restructure the province's overall energy market, which would take effect by 2027. Bellissimo adds that her group is concerned about the future role of wind and solar power in the restructuring and "prolonged and increasing uncertainty" for the renewables sector. Alberta accounted for 90% of all Canadian clean energy deployment last year.

“If we get years of market uncertainty for developers without any indication of what the end result is going to look like, that could really slow down the net-zero transition,” a Pembina senior electricity analyst told The Globe and Mail.