The Alberta government was talking about a pause on renewable energy projects in June, far sooner than previously known, according to a new document obtained by The Narwhal. 

The briefing note, obtained through a freedom of information request, shows Affordability and Utilities Minister Nathan Neudorf showed up for his introductory meeting with the chair of the Alberta Utilities Commission, Carolyn Dahl Rees, ready to talk about suspending approvals for renewable energy on June 29 — just one month after the May 29 provincial election and well before the government announced its surprise renewable energy moratorium in early August.

The note, drafted on June 23, is heavily redacted but one section at the bottom of the note is headlined “Suspending [Alberta Utilities Commission] approvals for renewable electricity projects.” The contents of that section are blacked out, so it’s not clear what message was delivered by the minister or who initiated the conversation about the pause. 

The Alberta Utilities Commission is the regulator in charge of approving power projects and was tasked by the government in August to institute a seven-month pause on approvals while conducting an inquiry into regulatory changes. 

Duane Bratt, a political scientist at Mount Royal University in Calgary, said even without details, the note is significant as it is dated just two weeks after Neudorf was sworn in as minister and after months of the government saying its decision was in response to requests at the end of July from, among others, the commission.

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He also says while the commission is independent, the government controls its board appointments and the United Conservative Party was particularly aggressive in replacing boards members in the province, even before their terms expired.

“It just puts even further to the lie that the government was being reactive to our independent agencies,” he said by phone. “And I just did air quotes around ‘independent.’ ”

Alberta government unclear on reasons for introducing renewables pause

Albertans, and industry, were caught off guard on Aug. 3, the day the Alberta government announced a surprise pause on all new renewable energy projects for seven months, stifling development of wind and solar projects across the province that have been surging in recent years.

The government cited two letters to justify the decision: one letter from the Alberta Electric System Operator and one from the Alberta Utilities Commission. The system operator manages the provincial grid, while the commision is the regulator in charge of power projects.

Both letters were dated July 21 and were attached to the government news release announcing the pause. “This approach is in direct response to a letter received from the [Alberta Utilities Commission] and concerns raised from municipalities and landowners,” the news release said.

However, the utilities commission letter did not ask for a pause and the system operator letter simply said it would support the process as it is implemented.

A solar farm in winter, with snow blanketing the ground
Renewable energy has been surging in Alberta, thanks in part to its open market. Critics of the government’s pause on project approvals worry it will do significant damage to the industry and chill investment. The government, meanwhile, argues development was happening too fast. Photo: Amber Bracken / The Narwhal

Companies in the renewable sector, as well as the Canadian Renewable Energy Association, said they were not consulted prior to the announcement of the pause in August, over a month after Neudorf’s first meeting with the commission. The reaction to the announcement has largely been one of shock and confusion.  

The Peace Energy Cooperative, in one of hundreds of letters submitted to the commission regarding the pause, said it was just days away from submitting an application for a relatively small solar installation before the announcement. 

“We are very disappointed to see this order-in-council restricting renewable energy development in Alberta on such short notice with no consultation,” reads part of its submission.

The pause directly impacts 13 projects currently in the approval process through the commission, but an analysis by the Pembina Institute shows there are 118 projects at some stage of development, including those which haven’t gone to the Alberta Utilities Commission yet. It pegs the investment tied to building those projects at $33 billion. 

Affordability and Utilities Minister Neudorf told the Canadian Press in August the government wasn’t acting on the letters alone — despite the government’s contradictory statements. His office cited “multiple briefings and conversations” leading up to the decision. 

Since that time, the government has not clearly outlined what motivated the announcement and has not answered questions from The Narwhal about earlier documents that appear to contradict its talking points or about the latest briefing note.

Prior to the latest briefing note, the earliest known reference to government discussion of a pause was July 20.

The revelations, first about the July 20 briefing note and now the June 23 briefing note, stem from two freedom of information requests for documents created between Oct. 7, 2022 — the day Alberta Premier Danielle Smith was chosen as leader of the United Conservative Party (UCP) — and Sept. 15, 2023.

When asked in November why the request for all briefings notes and correspondence with stakeholders dating back over a year did not include documents showing “multiple briefings and correspondence” leading up to the decision, Neudorf’s press secretary Josh Aldrich only referred to a prepared statement which reiterated the minister’s position and said he couldn’t answer why there wasn’t any evidence provided through freedom of information.

Six pages of documents, from the period between June 23 and July 20 were completely withheld in the latest freedom of information request, so it’s unclear what happened in the wake of the introductory meeting with the regulator.

The Alberta Electric System Operator and the commission have both declined to comment on the pause and have pointed to the letters shared by the government, which only acknowledged the government asked for the pause. 

“She has had problems with telling the truth,” Bratt said in reference to Smith. “And I don’t know why she is trying to deflect this, as opposed to just coming out and saying, you know, ‘these are the problems — we’re worried about reclamation, we’re concerned about land use, we’re hearing this from our constituents.’ ”

Wind turbines on the horizon with mountains in the background and a river valley in the foreground.
Southern Alberta is dotted with wind farms harnessing the seemingly endless gusts that blow through the area. Since the government announced a pause on approving renewable energy projects, many have questioned why it was necessary for the regulator to conduct an inquiry into rules for these types of development. Photo: Gavin John / The Narwhal

In response to questions about the recently obtained briefing note, Alberta Utilities Commission spokesperson Geoff Scotton said questions should be directed to the Ministry of Affordability and Utilities and that the commission had no further comment on the meeting between the minister and the board chair.

The minister’s office did not respond to questions sent by The Narwhal. 

Neudorf’s calendar, obtained through a previous freedom of information request, shows he met with the system operator’s board chair one day before meeting with the commission chair. A briefing note for that meeting was not released in the request seeking all briefing notes for the minister related to the pause on renewable projects, so it’s not clear if the note was withheld, not supplied or the issue was not raised with the system operator. 

Alberta government defended regulations for months with landowners 

Other documents related to the government’s stance on renewable energy indicate a marked change of tone prior to the May 2023 provincial election, which resulted in Premier Smith’s first electoral victory as United Conservative Party leader.

A previous freedom of information request seeking correspondence with stakeholders and briefing notes regarding the renewables pause resulted in hundreds of pages of emails from landowners and emailed responses from government with regard to concerns over Alberta’s surge in renewable energy development from as far back as November 2022. 

Most of those letters are in opposition to specific wind or solar projects, but largely mimic the terms of the current Alberta Utilities Commission inquiry into regulatory changes for renewable projects, including impacts on farmland and ensuring land is reclaimed if a project shuts down. 

The government responses, however, point to the regulations already in place that allow the commission to address those concerns when it comes to renewable projects. 

Then-minister of affordability and utilities Matt Jones repeatedly highlighted those powers and emphasized the independence of the regulator in making decisions. 

In one note prepared for an unnamed MLA prior to a meeting between Red Deer county officials and Minister of Transportation and Economic Corridors Devin Dreeshen in February 2023, the government systematically counters concerns regarding renewable developments — highlighting the ability to mingle farmland with solar installations and pointing to existing reclamation requirements as well as public involvement in project approval deliberations.

Wind turbines can be immense. The Alberta government argues the costs of reclamation need to be factored in to decisions about the pace and scaled of renewable energy development. In Alberta, wind farms and solar installations take place on private land and require approval from, and contracts with, landowners. That includes security deposits for reclamation. Photo: Dennis Schroder / National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

All renewable energy projects require landowner consent and acceptance of private contracts before they can proceed, as opposed to oil and gas developments which, ultimately, cannot be rejected by a landowner.

The first indication of a shift in tone arrived a few weeks after Smith won the provincial election and just days before the June 29 meeting between Neudorf and the chair of the Alberta commission, when Municipal Affairs Minister Ric McIver responded to an individual on behalf of the government.

“Based on the concerns we have been hearing from Albertans like yourself and at events like the [Rural Municipalities of Alberta] conference, I will be working with my colleagues in Affordability and Utilities, and Agriculture and Irrigation, to review the balance between provincial and local decision-making authority, and together we will determine whether adjustments are needed,” he wrote on June 20. 

“Ultimately, we want to ensure a stable and reliable investment climate to attract new development and diversify our economy, while also ensuring that the local impacts of development are fully understood and addressed to the greatest extent possible.”

Neudorf’s office did not respond to a request for an interview or answer emailed questions. 

UCP did not campaign on renewables pause, despite moving fast after Alberta election

The pause was not mentioned during the spring campaign, which re-elected the United Conservative Party under its new leader, Smith.

Bratt says it’s not the only big item the government didn’t want to campaign on.

“[Smith] put all of these items on the shelf because they were unpopular, but the moment that she won the election they came back,” he said. 

“It took a while for the Sovereignty Act. It even took a while for the pensions. But renewables? This was days, weeks afterwards.”

Andrew Leach, a professor of economics and law at the University of Alberta, isn’t sure the decision can be blamed solely on a conservative government bent on quashing renewable energy. 

There are thousands of megawatts of renewables in the queue for future development that would raise questions and concerns for any government. Alberta, essentially, had been too successful at attracting investment in the sector without ensuring its rules, regulations and infrastructure were keeping pace, he said.

He says there are still a lot of questions about how the decision to issue a moratorium on renewable energy came to be. 

“It certainly tells us that there was a lot going on before, that is not the way the premier presented it,” he said.

Leach doesn’t know what happened in internal meetings, but says it’s plausible the commission was worried about the pace of renewable energy development in Alberta and was seeking solutions — which could have ultimately led to the moratorium. 

He says the commission already has wide-ranging powers when it comes to imposing conditions on individual projects, but it would make sense for the regulator to consult with the government and stakeholders on broader policy issues.

But, he said, “that’s not how this was presented,” referring to the premier’s justification for the moratorium.

“If the [Alberta Utilities Commission] felt that they were no longer able to appropriately approve or to consider applications, then that’s a different ballgame. But we still haven’t seen that.”

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