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Winds of change… Winds of war

The road to hell is paved with good intentions. It is hard to believe that Premier McGuinty had any Machiavellian agenda when his government conceived the Green Energy Act. It seems like a good idea to harness renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power and replace the fossil fuel power plants that are contributing mightily to global warming.

It’s happened before, and it will happen again, that somewhere between the eureka moment and the implementation of the policy things go horribly wrong. Just like Newton’s Third Law of Motion, for every action by government, be it taxation or regulation, there is a reaction by the public.

The recent budget action to increase taxes on the very rich will surely see a reaction with deft stick handling by their accountants and tax advisors. Similarly, the incentives needed to drive the green energy initiatives are creating a whole new set of problems that were not immediately understood when our provincial legislation was tabled a few years ago.

South of Powassan a wind farm is planned. In the spirit of disclosure, I live in Powassan a few kilometers from the potential wind farm site. I think it would be cool to see these giants from a safe distance sprouting above the tree line on the high ridge to the south. It’s nice that a few landowners in that area stand to have a literal windfall of up to $12,000 per turbine per year for 20 years for allowing the wind power company to build their money-machines on land that has limited potential for income. It must be nice for the investors to reportedly gross up to $1.2million per turbine and get a 19 per cent return on investment, guaranteed for 20 years.

Let me deviate a little. In 2001, when I was in Denmark doing research on European agriculture, I had my first exposure to a government committed to reduce reliance on fossil fuels by 30 per cent over the next 20 years. Denmark planned to do it with wind power and biogas. Denmark’s wind program was well advanced and the geography of the nation on the North Sea and Baltic lent itself to the cause. Every farmer I met wanted a wind turbine, and why not? They were getting the equivalent of four cents a kilowatt above the retail rate of electricity, and glad of it! Moreover, the UK wind power program costs the average British retail hydro user an additional 52 pounds a year. That’s about $1.70 per week. Obviously our Ontario bean counters were feeling generous when Queen’s Park figured that 81cents per kw/h was the magic incentive number needed here under our Feed in Tariff program?

The impact of paying for our green energy sources is just starting to show as hydro bills surge, and the so called “global adjustment” for industrial users threatens to drive employers such as Fabrene in North Bay out of the province. The good intentions of green energy start to look politically suspect when local municipalities are stripped of any zoning and land use authority regarding wind turbines. It looks even worse when you discover that environmental assessments are diluted, if not waived. The irony in Powassan is that last year a handful of migratory birds, Bobolinks, essentially derailed a small business park the municipality was building after a few dared to nest on the subject lands. Yet a wind farm could, in theory, drive every four-legged mammal off our ridge south of town.

Good intentions turn to tears of frustration when we read that due to the unpredictable supply of wind and solar power Ontario is selling surplus to Quebec or the USA at giveaway pricing, and that some smaller hydro facilities, which provide the cheapest and best renewable energy, are shut down when the wind blows and the sun shines.

All the debatable issues about the effects of noise and human health; the possible degradation of residential property values; the impacts on wildlife; the aesthetics of these massive turbines on the rural landscape, are before us. There is no doubt that already stress is on the residents who may have these structures in their backyards. Will they be able to sell their properties at today’s values? Will mortgages be available on these houses? Will these policies tear our rural communities apart?

The debate is ultimately about democracy. It’s about allowing local people to help shape their localities and not have Big Government ramming dubious policies down our throats with limited options for public input. This government does not have a well-developed plan that has considered the social and economic impacts of the Green Monster they have cobbled together. Green energy should have been an exciting step forward in public policy. Instead government has turned the winds of rural tranquility into a potential socio-economic tornado.

Premier McGuinty should have the political courage to rethink the green energy file, and admit his good intentions have been blown off course.