Project to convert oil, gas wells to solar goes ahead

The idea to convert non-productive fossil fuel sites into solar stations was developed by Keith Hirsche of RenuWell about four years ago. | Scfreencap via

A pilot project in an Alberta municipality has received funding, which could pave the way for cheaper rural electricity

A pilot project to convert orphaned oil and gas well sites into solar energy production sites will proceed this year in the Municipal District of Taber.

The municipality was officially approved Aug. 17 to receive a $2.1 million grant through the Municipal Climate Change Action Centre and Alberta Innovates. That money plus $1.5 million from the Irrigation Canal Power Co-operative (IRRICAN) will be used to convert two to four oil and gas well sites to produce two megawatts of solar electricity.

The idea to convert non-productive fossil fuel sites into solar stations was developed by Keith Hirsche of RenuWell about four years ago.

It has taken that long to leap the regulatory hurdles involving oil companies, the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) and the Orphan Well Association.

There were initial concerns that conversion would remove the onus on energy companies to reclaim unused and abandoned sites.

“That is why it took four years to get this thing to the first step,” Hirsche said Aug. 20.

Work with Alberta Environment and the AER has led to a policy framework “that would minimize and basically close all the holes that would cause this to just be a transfer of liability onto the public.”

Hirsche said new AER directives require that sites selected for solar projects be reclaimed by the company that owns them or by the OWA. That includes plugging the well, removing “topside” equipment, protecting groundwater, replacing topsoil and re-establishing vegetation.

“So all of those steps have to be done just the same as if the site was just going to go back to the farmer or go back to public use,” Hirsche said.

“The only difference that we have is that the access roads and the power lines, under the normal protocols, would have to be taken out. But if the landowner is willing to host a solar project, the landowner can sign off and say, ‘I’ll accept the road and I’ll accept the power line as an improvement.’ ”

The solar operator then takes responsibility for future reclamation.

The first site in the pilot, on the James Molnar farm near Barnwell, Alta., has been troublesome for years. Chevron drilled for oil there in the 1960s, which later resulted in an oil spill that, due to lack of regulations at the time, was never cleaned up, said Hirsche. Another company put a gas well on the site about 20 years later and then went broke. The well fell to the OWA for cleanup.

“That’s the one that we have targeted from the beginning to be our pilot.”

The other site will be in the Fincastle region of the district but the precise location isn’t finalized.

IRRICAN’s interest and partial financing of the project relates to reduced electrical costs on irrigation systems. The St. Mary River, Taber and Raymond irrigation districts own the co-operative and it will own and operate the solar generation projects in the pilot.

Electrical costs have risen dramatically in the past several years and among the biggest components are transmission fees.

“The beauty of having these distribution systems, like small scale solar projects close to where the irrigation systems are operating, is that the power is generated locally and it doesn’t have to take excess power for transmission,” said Hirsche.

For the M.D. of Taber, it means tax revenue on orphaned wells.

“The project has many benefits including the cleanup and repurposing of abandoned oil and gas sites, diversifying the assessment base for the M.D. of Taber and providing the opportunity for the irrigation industry and others to access reliable lower cost power,” said M.D. Reeve Merrill Harris in a news release about the grant funding.

Canadian Solar, a major solar production company that has several projects underway in Alberta, will cover any cost overruns for the pilot up to a maximum of $700,000. Hirsche estimates costs at about $3 million.

“If this pilot is successful Canadian Solar is planning a commercial expansion, which could be hundreds of leases a year if these first two work out the way that we expect.”

Also part of the project is Iron & Earth, a not-for-profit entity designed to employ former fossil fuel industry workers in renewable energy jobs. About 15 people will take a five-day training course at Medicine Hat College and then be able to work on the solar installation project.

“We recognized that all of our trade skills were applicable to different types of renewable energy technologies,” said executive director Liam Hildebrand. It’s “a good opportunity for us to find more work.”

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