TORONTO – Punished in last fall’s election, Ontario’s minority Liberal government responded to a groundswell of rural discontent over its green energy program Thursday by announcing changes that will allow municipalities a greater say in solar and wind farm decisions.
The changes also include a large drop in rates paid to homeowners and large developers looking to cash in on Ontario’s green rush.
New rooftop and ground-mounted solar installations, for example, will be paid nearly one-third less than the early adopters, while larger solar projects will drop by nearly 22 per cent.
Wind rates, too, will drop by nearly 15 per cent across the board.
Ontario Energy Minister Chris Bentley said the drop in rates will help ease the impact renewable energy is having on electricity bills.
Those bills are expected to jump by 50 per cent over the next five years. Roughly half the increase is attributable to green energy plans.
“These price decreases will help reduce that moderately,” Bentley said Thursday.
Thousands of already-approved contracts for higher rates will remain in place for their 20-year contract duration. Water, biomass, biogas and landfill gas rates all remain the same.
Lauded by some for its innovative and aggressive approach, Ontario’s green energy plan has drawn criticism in other quarters.
The program offered premium rates for renewable energy projects that agreed to use 50- to 60-per-cent domestic content. That sudden influx of new generation technology was designed to jump-start a new green energy manufacturing sector.
However, there are signs the Liberal government lost control of the program.
Provincial Auditor General Jim McCarter slammed the government in December for undertaking a multi-billion-dollar scheme without analysing its impact “on future electricity prices, net job creation or losses … and greenhouse gas emissions.”
McCarter found that the provincial Grits voluntarily spent $4.4 billion more than they could have.
Perhaps more damning than the auditor’s report were the results of the October 2011 election.
The Liberals lost seven key rural seats in that contest, including four belonging to cabinet ministers, on their way to winning a slim, 53-seat minority. The rural losses were largely attributed to provisions in its green energy act that stripped wind and solar siting decisions from municipalities.
The province said Wednesday it will introduce a point system for future projects that rewards municipal involvement.
Points will be awarded for those that pass a resolution in favour of the project. Large wind and solar projects that involve 50 or more property owners will receive extra points as well.
Bentley said there are no hard and fast thresholds for a project’s success in the new points system. He also failed to respond directly when asked what level of local opposition would kill a wind project.
“Let’s put it in the positive,” he said. “Those projects with community participation and municipal support will be more likely to proceed.”
The Association of Municipalities of Ontario gave the changes a lukewarm endorsement.
“Planning approvals for renewable energy projects will remain with the Government of Ontario and that will disappoint some communities,” the organization said in a statement.
Nevertheless, Gary McNamara, president of AMO, added that the changes “should have the effect of gravitating green energy projects toward communities that support them.”
Ontario originally stripped local governments of siting power because of the inherent NIMBYism (Not In My Back Yard) that goes along with wind turbines.
One grassroots organization, Wind Concerns Ontario, has launched several unsuccessful court and quasi-judicial challenges to the green energy act, complaining the turbines emit low-frequency noise that leads to sleeplessness and a range of corresponding health disorders.