Stanbridge Station – When farmer Pol Petit shifted in his chair, indicating he had something to say, the clamour of conversations around the kitchen table of the farmhouse evaporated.
President of a local chapter of the Union des Producteurs Agricole and a devotee of writer Victor Hugo, Petit is a homespun philosopher. Recently, he has pondered the notion of massive wind turbines planted across the region’s rich agricultural land.
“Over a couple of centuries, your ancestors worked this land, clearing trees, pulling out rocks … and putting in drainage systems to make great farm land that produces food,” he said.
“If the wind-farm proposals go ahead, there will be access roads to turbines of crushed rock that are 15 feet wide and four feet deep. And the foundations that will anchor these huge turbines will require 200 to 600 cubic metres of concrete.
“After hundreds of years, rocks will be brought back to the land and that land will be forever changed.”
The others around the table nodded heads in agreement.
“But the worse thing is that, no matter if the proposals go ahead or not, they have created animosity.”
The clamour erupted again, as examples of brother set against brother and neighbour against neighbour were reviewed.
Across the province, wind-farm promoters are scrambling to respond to Hydro-Quebec’s call to tender proposals to supply 2,000 megawatts of wind power to the grid.
The utility won’t say how many firms are vying for projects but in wind-swept regions such as the plain of the Richelieu River, which has the added benefit of existing transmission lines and proximity to the power demands of Montreal, competition is keen.
Bllions of dollars are in play, and some of it will trickle into the coffers of municipalities and farmers’ pockets.
Gale Force Energy Ltd., a Toronto-based subsidiary of Airtricity Holdings Ltd., of Ireland, hopes to present five proposals to Hydro, spokesman Norm Morcos said.
A $400-million project near St. Sebastien, now pegged at 180 megawatts, would put 80 to 100 turbines on farmland for 25 years, he said.
“Local direct payments (to landowners and municipalities) would be about $1.5 million” each year.
Add to that about $25 million to be spent locally during construction and the equivalent of 600 one-year construction jobs, he said.
So money talks, but it is not the only voice at the table.
Taking lessons from earlier wind-farm development in the Gaspe and public protest over Hydro-Quebec’s bid to build a Suroit natural gas generator in Beauharnois, the province has factored community support into the point system used to determine which firms win their bids.
“If you are not supported by the local population, you are dead,” said David Cliche, a former Parti Quebecois environment minister now in the employ of Groupe S.M. International Inc.
The Quebec consulting firm’s initial foray as wind-farm developer involves two projects in the Monteregie, one around Stanbridge Station, the other in the St. Sebastien area.
Community support will be required for all the regulatory approvals necessary before the project gets the go-ahead, Cliche said.
“We need five green lights:” Hydro-Quebec’s; the local municipality; the regional municipality; the Commission de protection du territoire agricole du Quebec, because the towers will go on farm land; and the Bureau d’audiences publiques sur l’environnement.
A wind farm is “a project of consensus and if you don’t have consensus, you don’t have a project,” he said.
At this point, controversy, not consensus, is the rule as word spreads of the various projects being promoted in the region.
Farmers who are involved in the No committees have amassed thick folders replete with media and scientific reports about negative impacts linked to wind farms.
Key among their concerns are the loss of farmland, visual and noise pollution and the impact on property values and tourism, farmer Helene Campbell said.
Artists, town residents, country land holders as well as former Montrealers who recently moved to the area to retire told The Gazette that they are alarmed at the prospect of wind farms.
“There will be a fundamental change in our economy, our landscape and our culture if (the wind farm proposal) goes forward,” said Eden Muir, an architect who has returned to his native region after teaching at Columbia University in New York City.
The S.M. proposal for the Stanbridge Station area now involves about 50 turbines, Cliche said.
The turbine’s maximum height would be 100 metres, from base to hub, or 150 metres from base to the top of its outstretched arm, Muir said.
The local landmark, Pike River’s church, is only 30 metres high, from its base to the top of its bell tower.
The proposed wind farm “would be like building the skyline of Montreal, in a zone bigger than downtown Montreal,” Muir said.
Towers that would be about four-fifths the height of Place Ville Marie, would be “visible from everywhere,” he said.
There is no getting away from “the visual impact” of wind turbines, Cliche agreed.
“It is the one impact that you will never mitigate,” he said.
“People have to agree to accept living with the landscape of a wind farm and windmills turning when the wind blows.”
That’s one reason his firm is offering direct compensation to municipalities.
MRC Brome-Missisquoi, the regional council that encompasses Stanbridge Station and the two other municipalities affected by S.M.’s proposal, is proceeding cautiously, director-general Robert Desmarais, said.
It has had a hard look at the Gaspe, where the province’s first big wind farms were planted.
“The key problems there were … that the community regretted not having had a way to protect the landscape and, secondly, there weren’t enough economic benefits for their community,” he said.
The MRC has decided that 60 per cent of its territory will be off-limits for industrial-sized turbines.
An economist and technical adviser have been hired to assess S.M.’s proposal. That assessment, along with details of municipal compensation, will be presented during public meetings tentatively set for May 28. That process will be orchestrated by an expert in public consultation supplied by the provincial environment department.
“It is one of the most important issues in our region in terms of impact on the landscape and on economic development,” Desmarais said.
Sustainable development is needed to attract or retain young people because the region’s population is both decreasing and aging, he said.
Second-generation farmer Andre Pion owns about 650 acres of land and farms a total of 875 acres, producing crops like corn, soybean and wheat. He is the spokesman for about a dozen farmers who have agreed to sign first-stage contracts with Cliche.
Pion said he’d like to take more than the one turbine that the contours of his land can accommodate.
“The main reason we are for this type of project is that it doesn’t take much land. It would take less than one-tenth of a hectare,” and turbines are relatively easy to farm around, he said.
“The money is important also,” he added.
In terms of the land a turbine and its roads require, “there is no crop that can match the revenues we can make,” he said.
Rumours are rife about what farmers stand to earn per turbine. With firms sometimes competing for the same land, Cliche and Morcos are tight-lipped about their offers.
For each turbine, farmers stand to earn enough “to cover the cost of a new car” every year, Morcos said.
Should the S.M. project become a reality, a flat rate and “production bonus” would be provided farmers, Pion said.
What convinced him and his neighbours to sign with Cliche was his “open-book” approach, plus a hard-won right of approval by the farmers of the final plan.
“We think we are doing the right thing,” Pion said. “We may be wrong but we think that they won’t make much noise and we won’t hear them and, after a certain time, we won’t see them anymore.”
Of more concern to Pion is his view that some neighbours refuse to even listen to S.M.’s proposal.
But what Pion fears most is a permanent rift in the tightly knit communities that make up the region.
“We don’t want this project if the cost is our neighbours not talking to us,” the father of young twins said. “A few people will be against the project, that’s normal, but if the split is half-and-half, that will be a huge concern for all of us.”
On Monday, municipalities in the regions will be holding their monthly meetings. Wind farm opponents are urging a strong turnout at those meetings. Petitions, now bearing hundreds of signatures, are circulating, and offers are being assessed by farmers, the UPA, by municipalities and by promoters themselves.
Hydro-Quebec’s original deadline for bids – April 17 – has been revised twice and is now pegged for Sept. 15.
The seeds of an unknown harvest are being sown. It’s anyone’s guess now what will sprout up in this region.
By Lynn Moore
31 March 2007
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