More and more across eastern Ontario, citizens are standing up in opposition to large-scale solar- and wind-power projects.
It’s pushback against the province’s Green Energy Act, which took away the ability of municipalities to regulate where megaprojects can and cannot be built.
In Kingston’s rural area to the northwest, Samsung is about to build a 100-megawatt solar facility on 800 acres of land it has accumulated through private deals with landowners.
Kingston has no power to officially criticize, alter or reject the project, except for modest aesthetic purposes. All decisions rest with the provincial government – from siting approval to setting assessment levels.
For citizens near Unity Road the concerns are many
• the wildlife habitat fragmentation created by rows and rows of panels taking up hundreds of acres of rural land;
• water quality, particularly if solar companies plan on using detergents to clean the panels, as well as stormwater issues;
• the potential negative effects on wells of drilling holes to install the panels; and,
• the loss of prime agricultural land.
Two Kingston city councillors have been trying to balance the concerns of the Unity Road Ratepayers Association with the goals of the company – Jeff Scott through the Rural Affairs Advisory Committee and Sandy Berg on the Kingston Environmental Advisory Forum (KEAF).
Berg said she and Scott have had productive talks with Samsung and provincial environment and natural resources ministry officials.
“There are a lot of good discussions going on,” she said. “We want to ensure all of the stakeholders are heard.
“I have personally had many, many open discussions with members of the ministries, [Kingston and the Islands MPP] John Gerretsen, the folks with the solar companies, our political counterparts in Loyalist, so I’m not in any way put off by the fact this is in the provincial purview.”
Berg believes they have already made headway after Scott told Samsung outright that he would not support any panels going on good farmland.
Berg noted at a recent public meeting held by Samsung that those areas were no longer showing on the company maps as areas of development.
“There’s an impression that nobody is listening,” said Berg. “We are hearing the concerns and we are acting on them.”
Striking are the parallels between the way solar panel projects like the one on Unity Road are introduced to the community and, for example, the big wind turbine project on Wolfe Island.
They start, invariably, with offers of money.
Representatives of large companies approach individuals with deals offering long-term payments for the use of their lands.
The deals, discussed over back fences and inked in country kitchens, can cause serious rifts in the communities.
On Wolfe Island, turbines are worth about $7,000 a year each to the landowner.
Around Unity Road, Samsung offered the owners about $400 a year per acre.
That’s a very good price, especially if the land in question is not considered prime agricultural.
But it’s not so good if you’re the neighbour who doesn’t stand to profit but has to look out over the altered landscape.
Gord Taylor, who lives on Rock Road and whose property abuts the proposed 800-acre facility, was offered a deal by Samsung.
He and his wife refused.
“We said it was wrong for us and wrong for the community,” said Taylor, now active with the ratepayers’ association.
He and fellow association members are especially concerned about their household wells, most of which are shallow in that area and already are prone to drying up in hot summers.
The water issue is a particularly sensitive one. Samsung must drill thousands of holes to sink the posts that will hold the tens of thousands solar panels up to the sun. Neighbours fear that could interfere with the underground aquifers.
Taylor said he doesn’t blame his neighbours for signing lucrative contracts.
“There are folks on this road who stand to make money on land that has been marginal a long time,” he said. “We want people to make a buck.”
However, since the association has become active, Taylor said some of those signatories are having second thoughts.
“Now some are saying we never thought it would have an impact.”
Proximity to turbines was also a concern on Wolfe Island. That project was built before the province revised the Green Energy Act to specify that turbines could not be erected within 550 metres of a residence.
Two Wolfe Island residents have been appealing the Municipal Property Assessment Corporation to have their taxes lowered, claiming that the turbines near them have lowered their property value and enjoyment of their home.
Taylor said there is a mini-exodus starting in his area – people selling their homes before project construction begins, fearing negative health effects and property devaluation.
The Liberal government recently announced it wasn’t going to foist green power projects on municipalities any more.
Consultations must take place with First Nations who may be affected.
And local governments have some control over landscaping around solar plants to reduce the visual impact.
Aesthetics are important, but around Unity Road citizens feel the environmental concerns are more far-reaching.
A significant development took place in March when the government reduced the feed-in tariff it pays for power. For larger products, the rate will drop from 44.3 cents per kilowatt hour to 34.7 cents.
One solar company executive has already expressed concern to an on-line trade magazine that public involvement, while considered “valuable,” will further cut into profits.
The rural power struggle may only get worse.