Ontario’s Liberal leadership candidates have a lot of ground to make up with the province’s small town and rural communities if they ever hope to lead a majority government again.
The list of complaints is long – Local Health Integration Networks that closed down emergency rooms, the end of slot-revenue sharing with the horse-racing industry, the derailing of the Ontario Northland Railway, the perceived lack of support for the forestry industry and just general top-down Toronto decision-making.
One piece of legislation, though, stands out as particularly contentious. The Green Energy Act.
Designed to clear the way for the development of wind and solar power in Ontario – in place of coal-generated power – it has caused a lot of trouble.
As fast as turbines went up with no local input, neighbours turned on each other and Ontario’s anti-wind movement was born.
It spawned the Feed-In Tariff (FIT) program which originally offered such high rates of return at ratepayers’ expense that countries were fighting to get in the game.
The Toronto Sun asked Ontario’s Liberal leadership candidates for their views on the act and what, if anything, they would do differently.
Not surprisingly, local input appears to be a common theme of any future green energy plan.
Communities need a voice at the beginning of the planning process in green energy projects, Mississauga South MPP Charles Sousa said.
“Communities must have a voice in local energy planning, and decisions by local council must be respected,” he said. “Consideration must be given to the proximity of surrounding communities and the environmental and health impact when siting wind farms, gas plants and other generators.”
Sousa said he would focus on thermal energy and encourage more investment in research and development to support energy storage.
“The fact is solar and wind energy don’t always produce power when it’s needed. Storage can help solve that problem, and developing a made-in-Ontario solution will also help us be the go-to market for the rest of the world,” Sousa said.
Former Windsor West MPP Sandra Pupatello said the legislation and the FIT program have benefited Ontario.
“The Green Energy Act was critical in putting Ontario on the world map as a thought and action leader in renewable energy,” Pupatello said. “Our commitment to phase out coal-fired energy generation was smartly balanced with our commitment to replace it with sustainable, renewable, clean sources of energy. As a result, the province secured some globally significant lasting investments in manufacturing and new generation.”
Future versions of the FIT program will need adjustments, she said.
“While early versions of the program contracted high levels of renewable power generation, it failed to address the importance of local support and opposition to new power projects and it was not flexible enough to track the declining cost of that expensive hardware to taxpayers,” Pupatello said.
Don Valley West MPP Kathleen Wynne said she supports “increased municipal autonomy and local control” in determining where energy infrastructure is placed across the province.
“I know that we didn’t get it perfect the first time around, but I am committed to working with our partners and communities across the province to get it right,” Wynne said. “I’m committed to continuing to build a modern, reliable and stable clean energy system including closing dirty coal plants and more support for conservation.”
Ontario’s current energy surplus could be used to create jobs and spur economic growth, Mississauga-Erindale MPP Harinder Takhar said.
“For example, energy is one of the major costs associated with forestry products. By leveraging our surplus energy at this time we could attract new investments by providing competitive rates for new major forestry sector investment opportunities or provide upgrades to current plants within the guidelines of international trade agreements,” Takhar said.
The province needs “made-in-Ontario green reliable energy but local communities deserve to have a say in where projects land, he said.
“Local buy-in at the community level is a must when it comes to green energy. This is something that I firmly believe in and will commit to if I am elected primier. We need to use the Green Energy Act to ensure that Ontario becomes a leader in producing affordable and reliable green energy.”
St. Paul’s MPP Eric Hoskins said he would continue to build a sustainable, clean energy grid to phase out coal generation entirely by 2014.
“Our shift to renewable has led to lower rates of childhood asthma, cleaner air and fewer smog days,” Hoskins said.
But the leadership candidate said that there is a need to “constantly improve our approach” in a new industry like green power.
“I would give much greater weight to those green energy projects that have the explicit support of neighbours, communities and municipalities. We need to fast-track projects where communities say Yes-In-My-Back-Yard, or YIMBY, because they recognize that new power generation can be an important economic engine for local communities and their businesses,” Hoskins said. “Not only will this mean that communities have a greater say in whether there are energy projects in their community, it also creates incentives for companies bringing forward energy projects to get strong support from local communities.”
Toronto Centre MPP Glen Murray wants a complete redo of the legislation.
“I’m just going to turn this on its end,” Murray said.
Under Murray’s community energy plan, local energy needs would be evaluated and then the community would decide which of the “cleanest, greenest” generation options best meets their needs.
If a community doesn’t like wind or solar, it could opt for thermal or cogeneration or other options, Murray said.
The decision would be made locally.
“It avoids the problem of cancelling (gas) plants,” Murray said.
The former Parkdale-High Park MPP said he would review the Green Energy Act which he called an important investment in the province’s future.
The act prompted the modernization of energy consumption and supply, and is helping spur economic recovery through development of green technology, he said.
The phasing out of coal-fired generation has direct benefits for health, he said.
“I’m respectful of the complaints and the problems we’ve had since the act went into effect in 2009… The review will be will be aimed at fixing issues and creating transparency about our energy costs and choices,” he said. “This means ensuring as much priority as possible for community, farmer and First Nations proposals and restoring some level of local community say around siting.”
New nuclear plants may not be necessary as a result, he said.