Abandoned oil wells see second life in Alberta

One criticism of solar energy is that solar panels take up land that is needed for farming, even though many alternatives siting for panels have been developed. Some farmers are putting panels in the air and growing plants underneath; some panels are being placed on former landfills; and there are solar arrays on dams, lakes and old mine tailings ponds.

Then, listening to the radio this week, I heard one more idea – putting solar arrays on the many abandoned oil drilling sites in Alberta. These sites have already been removed from agriculture and disturbed as road access is built, but abandoned by the companies that drilled them.

“Alberta has a lot of opportunities to move into things like solar energy and wind energy,” Keith Hirsche said during an interview at the Global Energy Show in Calgary. “And as we’re doing that, we’re typically taking big land allocations to site the projects. What we started working on about five years ago, now is to take some of the lands under these inactive oil and gas sites and in suitable areas and utilize those same land locations for siting small, renewable energy solar projects.”

Photo by Iron & Earth

By reusing just 10% of the inactive or abandoned oil and gas infrastructure for solar, “we could achieve six to a hundred megawatts of solar generation, without taking more land from agriculture”, he says. ”This gives us a good fit for the government’s goal of 30% renewable energy by 2030, which would require more than 35,000 acres of land. If we can use 10% of the abandoned or inactive sites, then we can meet that renewable energy goal.”

Hirsche began his geoscience research career in 1977, focusing on improving recovery from oil and gas fields in Alberta and internationally. His work experience includes research support for in-situ oilsands projects and Canada’s first CO2 sequestration/EOR project. 

Shortly after he was introduced to renewable energy technology while visiting extended family in Denmark in 2003, he founded Elemental Energy Inc to explore how conventional and renewable energy systems can be combined for a more sustainable future. 

Since early 2016, he has worked with key stakeholders to realize the potential of using abandoned oil and gas sites as a foundation for solar energy development. The RenuWell Project aims to transition inactive oil and gas infrastructure to community-scale solar power generation, accelerating oil and gas reclamation and providing land for solar development without removing additional land from agriculture.

Iron & Earth, which was formed during an oil price crash which meant more than 100,000 oilpatch employees lost their jobs between 2015 and 2017,has been a key part of the RenuWell Project since its inception. Realizing that their skills could be transferred to the renewable energy industry, they launched Iron & Earth in the spring of 2016 and in 2023, expanded its mandate to reflect more of the communities and people they work with.

Jan. 19, 2023

Iron & Earth collaborated with Medicine Hat College, along with solar energy and wellsite closure experts, to develop a rapid upskilling program, the RenuWell Workforce Training Program, so fossil fuel industry and Indigenous workers could learn the basics of solar before working on transforming the well sites. The inaugural training program took place from June 20 – 27, 2022.

In November 2022,  the installation of two RenuWell Pilot Projects in the municipality district of Taber was completed and partners and stakeholders got together to celebrate the success. This solar array will provide power for 300 homes.

With funding through the Municipal Community Generation Challenge, and partners including the Municipal District of Taber, RenuWell Energy Solutions Inc., IRRICAN Power, and twoCanadian solar companies – Canadian Solar Inc. and SkyFire Energy Inc., the RenuWell Project has given two orphaned well sites a new and greener life, and power is now flowing into the grid.

The RenuWell Project has demonstrated how re-purposing legacy oil and gas infrastructure to community solar development can provide significant benefits to energy industries, the environment, and the economy, says Iron & Earth.

It offers new economic opportunities for landowners stuck with orphaned wells on their farms, energy cost savings for farmers who can purchase solar electricity to power irrigation systems, cost savings for consumers by repurposing existing infrastructure such as roads and powerlines put in place for the original oil well production, reduced reclamation costs for oil and gas companies, revenue generation for Irrigation Districts and municipalities, and training and employment opportunities for workers in reclamation and solar industries.

Cover image: Iron & Earth