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Pilot project to convert old oil and gas wells gets green light

Reusing roads and power lines from abandoned wells could make Alberta a renewable energy leader

Converting abandoned oil and gas wells to renewable power generation, like this Imaginea installation by SkyFire Energy near Tilley, could be a win win for Alberta. Some of that work is already getting underway in Taber, thanks to a pilot project set to launch next spring.  Photo: Renuwell

A pilot project to convert abandoned oil and gas sites in southern Alberta to renewable power generation has been given the green light and more than $4 million in funding to make it happen.

“So far, nobody has actually used abandoned oil and gas infrastructure for solar deployment,” said Keith Hirsche, who is heading up the RenuWell project for the Municipal District of Taber. “We know we can reuse abandoned oil and gas infrastructure for renewable energy development, but there’s not actually many working examples.

“This will be the first testing ground to demonstrate the viability. We’ll be able to prove out the benefits.”

The work involves removing well infrastructure but keeping the roads and power lines, which cuts both the reclamation cost and the price tag for the solar installation.

RenuWell was one of two municipal projects, out of 43 submissions, chosen by the Municipal Climate Change Action Centre to be funded under its Municipal Community Generation Challenge, an initiative offered by the centre in partnership with Alberta Innovates to support small-scale renewable or alternative energy generation.

The MD of Taber received $2.1 million for the project, which has also received $1.5 million in funding from IRRICAN (an irrigation canal power co-operative in southern Alberta) and up to $700,000 in in-kind funding from Canadian Solar. The funding will be used to construct between two and four solar projects — each will generate about two megawatts, or about $224,000 in electricity for the irrigation districts. It’s hoped this will help offset the increase in transmission costs for power to irrigation systems, which have more than doubled in the past 15 years.

“Back in 2005, farmers who were irrigated were paying seven cents a kilowatt hour for their power costs. Five cents of that was the energy and two cents were the transmission and distribution charges,” said Hirsche. “Today, they’re paying about 17 cents a kilowatt hour — five cents for energy, and 12 cents for distribution and transmission.

“By putting in these projects and having farmer-owned co-ops managing them, they would get credit for offsetting the transmission charges. That could then basically be used to reduce the overall cost to irrigated farmers for their power.”

Additionally, the project comes with a “knowledge-transfer component” that will see Iron & Earth, a non-profit organization that ‘upskills’ experienced workers in solar panel installations, partner with Medicine Hat College on a training program for 15 oil and gas and/or Indigenous workers in the spring.

And if the pilot project is successful, there’s potential to commercialize this approach and convert up to 100 to 200 sites a year in Alberta, which could create nearly 80,000 jobs across the province during the construction phase.

“It will bring economic development back to the rural areas,” said Hirsche. “We see a big change in southern Alberta as fields have been depleted in conventional oil area south of Edmonton. Those same employment opportunities aren’t there. I hope this is something that can do that.”

And while the focus right now is on southern Alberta, Hirsche expects that other parts of the country — even the world — could be knocking on his doors once the proof of concept is established by the pilot project.

“We’re not the only jurisdiction in the world facing this problem. The whole world is going through an energy transition,” said Hirsche.

“If we can model this and make this successful in Alberta, there’s a strong potential to export this concept from Alberta into other jurisdictions. We could really be a leader in the renewable energy field.”

COPA Medallion COPA finalist in 2012, 2014 and 2015.
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