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Smitherman plugs back in to green-energy debate  

Credit:  ADAM RADWANSKI, The Globe and Mail, www.theglobeandmail.com 26 December 2011 ~~

There have been more than 2,900 public submissions to the Ontario government’s two-year review of its controversial green-energy strategy.

But one of them, in particular, is sure to cause a buzz.

George Smitherman is the father of the Green Energy Act. As deputy premier and energy minister, he was a polarizing figure, even among fellow Liberals, for the take-no-prisoners (and occasionally reckless) way in which he pushed his policies through. So one might have expected that, when he waded back into provincial politics for the first time since his failed run for mayor of Toronto, he would unequivocally defend the policies that define his time at Queen’s Park.

Instead, his submission to the review – a copy of which was obtained by The Globe and Mail – offers a surprisingly candid assessment of where the program has fallen short. And it calls for changes to some of the more fundamental ways in which the government has tried to drive green-energy investment.

“The reason we built in the two-year review is that you know when you’re doing something that big, unintended consequences are real,” Mr. Smitherman said in an interview last week. “Some of what’s gone down is exactly what we predicted was possible, and some of what’s gone down I never predicted, in terms of how challenging it’s been.”

A portion of the complaints in his submission – the ones in which he assesses that green-energy projects aren’t getting out the door fast enough – are vintage George Smitherman. He laments his failure to “anticipate the barriers presented by the government’s own regulatory structures.” And he takes particular aim at the transmission utility Hydro One, which he said in the interview “has been exposed as too independent.”

Bur he also implicitly acknowledges that he moved too aggressively on some fronts. And one of his related recommendations will deservedly get a lot of attention.

Nothing has fuelled more green-energy opposition than the decision to strip municipalities of their decision-making power when it comes to the placement of wind turbines. Liberals have long contended that doing so was necessary to get any shovels in the ground, and privately claimed that most small-town mayors actually appreciated being spared the contentious zoning decisions. But Mr. Smitherman now sees the need to assuage what he called “unsettling circumstances in some municipalities.”

Toward that end, he recommends a compromise. Smaller projects still wouldn’t need the approval of the local government. But larger ones, with the capacity to generate more than 50 megawatts of power, could only move forward if the municipalities signed on.

Although the change would only apply to new projects, not those that have already been approved, it would be an obvious recognition that the government has alienated communities to date.

In a similar vein, Mr. Smitherman chastises developers for failing to seek out partners where turbines are being built. As a remedy, he proposes a minimum 10 per cent local ownership requirement, so that communities “have some skin in the game.”

These and other, less flashy changes that he proposes – including more frequent price reductions, and narrower criteria for awarding solar projects – will provide fodder to those who believe the province went off half-cocked on green energy. Meanwhile, sources within the wind-energy industry are already complaining that Mr. Smitherman is abandoning his own legacy project.

But clearly, Mr. Smitherman still believes in much of what he started. He insists that green energy’s costs to ratepayers have been exaggerated by its opponents, bristles at the notion that it hurt the Liberals in the recent election, and maintains that it will provide long-term jobs.

More than abandoning his legacy, he’s clearly trying to save it before it’s doomed by some combination of inefficiency and unpopularity.

Among the many suggestions that have been put forward during the review, Mr. Smitherman’s may not prove the most persuasive with Dalton McGuinty’s government. But it’s difficult to read his submission, and listen to him talk, and not come away with the impression that the green-energy strategy is in for some major changes. If even its most zealous and forceful proponent thinks mistakes were made, it’s more than likely his former colleagues feel the same way.

Source:  ADAM RADWANSKI, The Globe and Mail, www.theglobeandmail.com 26 December 2011

This article is the work of the source indicated. Any opinions expressed in it are not necessarily those of National Wind Watch.

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