As the global demands of energy and related services are constantly increasing to satisfy the social and economic growth, anthropogenic greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and resultant atmospheric concentration have reached their historical high compared to the pre-industrial level [1
]. The transition to renewable energy (RE) can lower GHG emissions and mitigate climate change, while still meeting global energy demands [2
]. However, the availability of RE varies regionally, and spatial patterns and spatial concentrations of RE potential do not always match the spatial patterns and spatial concentrations of energy demand. The successful implementation of RE projects is subject to a set of factors including regulations, physical and engineering limits, markets, and social/public acceptance [3
]. As a result, many regions continue to be reliant on fossil-based resources despite high access to RE resources.
Canada, for instance, holds abundant landscapes and natural resources that can, in theory, supply the entire country’s power consumption [6
]. Currently, RE resources, including hydropower, solar, wind, biomass, and geothermal, account for over 60% of Canada’s total primary energy supply [7
]. Despite this, the sources of power generation vary hugely in different provinces. The Canadian province of Alberta has one of the highest annual carbon dioxide (CO2
) emissions per-capita at 62.4 tonnes compared to the national average of 19.4 tonnes [9
]. Meanwhile, Alberta has some of the most promising and significant utility-scale RE resources in the country including on-shore wind, solar, and biomass resources [6
]. Alberta is also one of the largest oil-producing jurisdictions in the world [14
] and approximately 83% of its electricity generating capacity is coal- and natural-gas-fired generated [15
This carbon-intensive power system is being reconsidered by provincial and municipal governments in Alberta. With the passing of the Renewable Electricity Act in 2017, the government of Alberta has committed to have 30% of its electricity generated from renewable resources (including solar, wind, and biomass), while phasing out coal-burning power plants by 2030, and at the same time is capping emissions from its oil sands operations at 100 megatons per year [16
]. These provincial declarations are being matched and, in some cases, exceeded by declarations from local government. The Town of Canmore, for instance, set carbon reduction plans for its corporate emissions (town-owned non-residential facilities, fleets, lights, wastewater treatment) and community emissions (residential, commercial, and institutional buildings) by 80% from its 2015 levels by 2050 [17
]. Currently, two-thirds of Canmore’s GHG emissions are sourced from the carbon-intensive electricity grid in Alberta [18
]. As such, Canmore’s Climate Action Plan identifies “…local renewable energy production within town limits” as one of the essential approaches to meet targets [17
]. This includes utility-scale RE systems (i.e., greater than 1-megawatt capacity [19
Indeed, the global energy transition will need to translate and decentralize into local actions. Those actions result in fundamental changes to landscapes and land-use systems as wind turbines and solar panels pop up and as land is used to grow energy crops rather than, or in addition to, food crops. At first glance and in theory, there is more than enough land available to recover renewable energy at the rate society requires. The challenge, however, is that the vast majority of land is already being used to provide economic functions (e.g., agriculture) and ecosystem services (e.g., habitat). In other words, the area of land that can actually be used for RE recovery without compromising these existing economic and ecosystem services is very limited. One primary barrier to implementation at the local level is a deficiency of comprehensive planning tools to locate the “least-conflict lands”; i.e., land that can support RE systems with least regulatory, technical, economical, or social conflicts. There are few standardized RE planning frameworks that can foresee potential regulatory obstacles, encourage the implementation, or engage with the local communities and stakeholders [20
With these global and local opportunities and challenges in mind, this paper aims to (1) develop a standardized RE planning and deployment framework that considers the feasibility of local RE generation based on constraints related to resource access, economic cost, and land-use policies; (2) apply the framework in the town of Canmore, Alberta, Canada; and (3) estimate the approximate RE potentials for the town based on its availability of technical and legally accessible lands. The research focuses on wind and solar technologies since these have the most significant implications on local land-use changes and landscape impacts. Furthermore, we focus on electricity generation under the assumption that many heating systems and transport systems will be electrified and will demand more clean sources of electricity. Overall, by demonstrating the technical RE mapping experiences of a small, land-constrained jurisdiction, we hope this standardized RE planning framework can be replicated by local governments with similar ambitions and similar constraints related to RE development.
It is noteworthy that the conceptual structure of the AI-RE framework (Figure 1
) is designed to be universal and transferable, while detailed parameters and the classifications of layers must always be customized to suit the local context. In Canmore specifically, RE potential is shown to largely depend on decisions related to what are currently considered semi-permissive lands. Only 32% of these lands would secure the 180 hectares needed to be 100% powered by solar energy alone. Admittedly, this is a hypothetical scenario; achieving ambitious targets will never solely depend on only a single source of energy and much of the land considered ‘semi-permissive’ for RE is currently providing economic and ecosystem functions that need to be considered. Indeed, along with encouraging utility-scale RE development within the town’s limit, Canmore’s Climate Action Plan outlines a set of other approaches: incentivizing rooftop-level solar panel installations, retrofitting buildings with extra insulation and high-efficiency heating systems, adding electric or hybrid vehicles and charging stations, and the importing of RE or low carbon energies and fuels from regional energy sources in surrounding areas [17
]. The knowledge of where the RE resources are most likely to be developed can not only support Canmore’s transition to renewable energy transmission plans but also help amend and update its overall climate action strategies accordingly in the following decades.
The unique landscape of Canmore brings a lot of variations in not only the theoretical RE resources but also the regulatory restrictions, which raises further opportunities and challenges. The future RE development for Canmore is largely limited by its current LUB and land intersections with provincial parks. Its complex landscapes and provincial regulations on setback distances from a wind turbine enabled our emphasis on policy scenarios. However, above all, the small municipality provided us an opportunity to attentively address and integrate the jurisdiction’s land-use bylaw; something that is hard to capture in a larger, multi-jurisdictional, regional, or national studies of RE planning.
It should be recognized that land-use regulations and clean-energy technologies will change over time. One functionality of the standardized framework is to clarify that the decision analysis of land-based RE development is a set of tradeoffs. RE-related policy changes on a provincial scale would possibly alter the track of energy transition for local jurisdictions, while local land-use policies and by-laws will influence the availability of RE resources. In this regard, the technical mapping process established in this study and its results intend to foster an “interface” connecting the public, decision makers, and stakeholders that fundamentally accelerate the implication of land-based RE planning. Using the outputs of this study, such an interface will bridge the next step of the RE planning model: the participatory mapping by asking opinions from local residents on their favourable locations of possible RE development.
Due to the data availability in Canmore, this technical mapping model indeed has some limitations. Although Canmore’s relative solar irradiance is high compared to many other places [23
], the coarse resolution of solar PV input data (1km by 1km) [61
] may not be representative when the filtered lands are counted in hectare unit. Besides, the daily solar PV input data does not consider the annual variations of solar irradiance and possible snow-covers in cold-climate regions [69
]. Thus, the annual unit (1 MW) power generation from a solar farm may be overestimated in Table 3
, and further detailed engineering studies would be required to assess production potential more accurately. Furthermore, the economic
layer in this study uses a relative scale because it does not include the cost of substations, landcover cleaning, and removal, or the cost of RE facilities like wind turbines [30
], which may lead to the underestimation of cost. Apart from those data availability situations, the scope of this framework intuitively leaves some gaps to be filled by engineering and energy studies in the future. Given the least-conflict lands, for example, it would be still challenging to integrate electricity from RE into Canmore’s power distribution system when there is lack of storage system while the daily peak of power demanding and peak wind intensity (or solar irradiance) do not always overlap [21
Over the course of this study, Alberta’s Residential and Commercial Solar Program (RCSP) that provided PV installation incentives was suspended by the newly elected provincial government [71
]; incentive programs for wind energy such as the Renewable Electricity Program (REP) [16
] were cancelled simultaneously [72
]. Although the dropping price of RE development may compensate for the disappearing incentive programs in the long term, the local energy transition process remains overcast without provincial support. Moreover, the carbon levy used to disincentivize GHG emissions is not high enough at the provincial level. To meet the 30% share of RE energy target by 2030, some suggests that the current carbon tax (CAD 30/ton carbon emission) in Alberta is not high enough to incentivize the wind or solar power until such tax is increased by 700% to CAD 210/ton of CO2
]. Without a strongly carried standard on carbon levy, local jurisdictions such as Canmore may encounter longer lags on meeting the emission-reduction goal.
This highlights another consideration facing many small municipalities: even if Canmore could be 100% powered by RE by 2050, would Canmore’s case be powerful enough to lead the renewable energy transition at the provincial level? Nevertheless, the future energy landscape is full of variables. The town of Canmore also recognizes its advocacy and partnerships’ role to take actions like building long-term partnerships with the province and other municipalities for implementing smart electricity-grids and advocate for the province to reduce the carbon intensity of electricity [17
]. One may argue that a single municipality will not make any difference when most of Alberta’s energy productions come from fossil fuels. A long-term strategy of adopting RE requires patience and more, the courage to act when it is the right thing to do.
The global transition of energy to renewable sources requires careful spatial planning. Using Canmore as a case study, we demonstrate how a standardized land suitability framework for potential RE assessments can provide critical information to formalize these discussions. According to our study, even a land-limited jurisdiction such as Canmore has enough RE potential to meet its long term GHG-reduction goals and even achieve 100% electricity-powered by RE. In other words, the transition is not limited by land per se. Without environmental scenarios applied, the least-conflict and most economically accessible lands are found in central and northern Canmore along major roads and transmission lines. The next phase of the study will map out the voice from the community about where to locate potential RE facilities. Further research and consultations should be conducted on improving and expanding the input parameters of the model, as well as better understanding the bonds between RE sources, local targets, and the overall energy system.
Essentially, the energy transition process can be perceived as a land-based trade-off between energy provision, prevailing land-use functions, and social values related to those prevailing functions. To manage these trade-offs while facilitating local energy transition, we recommend that local governments and especially small municipalities assess the implications of their land-use plans on RE availability, track the market prices of different RE types, and monitor energy demands between all involved parties. Most importantly, we demonstrate how the technical mapping of a standard RE planning process can be universally and easily replicable with different measurements of resource recoverability.