In pioneer days, the highlands of Renfrew County broke many a promise, maybe the odd back.
Settlers found land that was thin-soiled, rocky and full of pitch. Logging was arduous, winters long and the views isolating, if beautiful.
But today, finally, there may well be gold in them there hills – in the very air they breathe.
A buzz is building across portions of the county about the economic harvest to be generated from windmill farms planned for Renfrew’s rugged peaks.
During the last couple of years, a number of well-financed power companies have been testing wind speeds on hilltops and signing up property owners to potentially lucrative leasing deals.
Zig Mintha, the mayor of Bonnechere Valley Township, says he knows of 29 or 30 landowners who have agreed to allow wind turbines on their properties.
It is no small matter.
A typical turbine is 80 metres tall – as high as a 20-storey building – requires a huge base, an access road and a tolerance for noise and visual intrusion.
But the stakes are high, with some landowners being paid as much as $12,000 annually in a 20-year contract.
“Right now, we’re looking at it with a positive, open mind,” said Mr. Mintha, whose township is based in Eganville, about 120 kilometres west of Ottawa. “We could be looking at the biggest thing to hit this area in 100 years.”
Total spending in the $400-million range is often mentioned, sparking talk of a construction boom. A series of open houses is being held this week.
However, some of the valley’s most picturesque views – from St. Mary’s Church in Wilno, for instance – could be impinged by the presence of these giant rotating blades. It will not please everyone.
Opposing voices have so far been fairly quiet, as neighbours weigh the prospect of cold, hard cash against the merits of introducing large, white propellers in a mostly forested setting.
At a public meeting last week, Toronto-based SkyPower Corp. unveiled plans to put a six-turbine farm on hills northwest of Wilno, with a start date of mid-2009.
It is one of several projects the firm is entertaining, including a 68-turbine farm in Foymount, one of Ontario’s wind hotspots.
Foymount, a former military radar base that bills itself as the highest populated spot in Ontario, is 30 kilometres southwest of Eganville and rests 550 metres above sea level. It sits on a long ridge of hills called the Opeongo Range or, on some maps, the Madawaska Highlands.
One of the firms hoping to establish a farm in the area is AIM PowerGen Corp., based in Toronto.
A spokesman for the firm said it hopes to develop a 115-megawatt farm during the next couple of years, with preliminary testing already under way. Cost could exceed $200 million.
Director of operations Drew Elliott said AIM has roughly 5,000 acres under option, with another 5,000 on the way. It would likely erect about 60 turbines, paying landowners $10,000 to $12,000 a year for access to their properties for 20 years.
Mr. Elliott said the “low-hanging fruit” – the windy corridors along the Great Lakes and in the Windsor area – are already spoken for or getting close scrutiny from wind-power companies, who are turning their gaze to elsewhere in Ontario.
“This is the next spot to be in.”
Mr. Elliott said an environmental assessment is now under way to deal with possible impacts on birds, animals and the ground ecology.
The Ontario government, in a bid to encourage new sources of electricity, will pay a premium for power produced by wind generation and a much greater one for solar-generated power.
This has sparked a surge in interest in wind farms, attracting multi-national companies with deep pockets.
A year ago, a research firm predicted $18 billion would be invested in wind power in Canada by 2015. In 2006 alone, Canada more than doubled its wind power capacity to about 1,460 megawatts.
Another major player involved in Renfrew County is Brookfield Renewable Power, which developed the Prince Wind Energy Project, northwest of Sault Ste. Marie. The company says that, with 126 turbines producing 189 megawatts, it is the largest wind farm in Canada.
André Legault, a vice-president of project development, said the firm has been lining up about 20,000 acres of private and Crown land in the Dacre area for a couple of years now.
About 100 private landowners are involved. This farm would generate about 100 megawatts and use roughly 50 or 60 turbines.
He said the firm is currently wind testing, a process that would continue for another couple of years. Because of environmental assessments and other approvals, he estimated it would be at least five years before the blades begin to turn.
This will be a difficult issue for residents of the county, attempting to balance the need for economic growth with a desire to safeguard the area’s natural beauty.
Set against the debate are the economic times, which have not been the greatest. The high Canadian dollar and the sagging U.S. economy are hurting the lumber industry, while manufacturing, like elsewhere in Ontario, is sagging.
An ill wind or a fresh breeze? We shall see.
14 March 2008
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