Wind farms in Haldimand County pay a yearly cash fee. The mayor says it’s making the best of a tough situation. Others think it’s a sell-out
The behemoth wind turbines lying in pieces across the field of Haldimand County – some of them now sprouting skyward – evoke starkly different reactions from different people.
For Don Boyle, Haldimand’s chief administrative officer, they are a promise of revenue to pay for new roads, arenas or other municipal projects.
For nurse practitioner Linda Rogers, they are a symbol of betrayal, of a local council that agreed to risk its residents’ well-being for a pot of money.
And for the wind turbine companies, they are a sign of the fulfillment of Ontario’s pledge of a green energy future.
Haldimand County has signed a unique set of agreements with the wind companies, which officials say should pour $2 million a year into the county’s coffers – a significant sum for a municipality of 45,000 people.
At the same time, the county – which will see 200 turbines soar over its fields along the north shore of Lake Erie – has said: “Enough.”
The county council has passed a formal resolution warning that it will provide no support for any more turbines.
Haldimand’s experience with wind turbines wraps up many of the conflicts that have besieged renewable energy in Ontario since the passage of the Green Energy Act in 2009.
Even Don Boyle, one of the architects of the funding agreement with the turbine companies, acknowledges mixed feelings.
“What we had to do was make the best of the situation we had,” Boyle said in an interview.
The continuing sore spot of the Green Energy Act is that it prohibits local communities from any zoning or planning decisions about turbines.
In addition, when the turbines go up, almost all of the revenue flows to the individual landowners who have leased property to the wind companies.
Those who consider them a nuisance have no way to object. And many who live in close proximity get no financial reward.
The Liberals found out how unpopular those policies are when they were virtually wiped out in rural Ontario in the 2011 election.
Don Boyle puts the rural perspective bluntly:
“The Green Energy Act was legislation that came out of Toronto,” he said.
The physical infrastructure, however, grew up in the countryside.
“It was put into a place where people might drive through and think there’s this wild open space, but these are all communities that are affected.
“That’s what was wrong with the Green Energy Act. It didn’t recognize communities.”
(Boyle knows something of Toronto: He was a senior official with the city until jumping to the top job in Haldimand in 2007.)
Four large wind companies targeted the county for major developments, totaling about 200 turbines, as well as solar installations.
Boyle and Mayor Ken Hewitt – freshly installed in 2010 – hoped there was money to be had from the turbine companies.
Hewitt said he quickly realized the property tax payments were minimal, and the lease payments for turbines flowed to landowners.
County officials finally hit on the strategy of calling all the wind companies to a single meeting and asking what they could come up with.
But they had no credible threat to make if the companies simply said, no. The companies already held contracts with the Ontario Power Authority.
All the county could do, says Hewitt, was appeal to the companies that they had a moral and ethical responsibility to the community to provide a public benefit.
Randi Rahamim, a spokesperson for Niagara Region Wind Corp., puts the county’s legal position under the Green Energy Act differently.
“Instead of eliminating the need to work with municipalities, it set the stage for the ability to customize a relationship with municipalities,” she said in an interview.
Niagara Wind, she says, “recognized the municipality was a key stakeholder and wanted to be a good corporate citizen and neighbour, and realized there was a need to give back.”
Samsung Renewable Energy, another company, replied to questions by e-mail.
“By providing meaningful, tangible benefits, we can support the community’s strength over the long term,” it said.
In the end, the companies agreed to contribute to a “community vibrancy fund” based on the generating capacity of the turbines and solar panels installed.
The money starts to flow when they start producing – which should be some time this year. Boyce and Hewitt are counting on getting $2 million a year in revenue, for the next 20 years.
The money is to be spent only in the areas where the renewable equipment is installed. Paving roads will be a big item in some areas, said Hewitt.
Not everyone is pleased, as Hewitt well understands.
Linda Rogers is a nurse practitioner who lives on a 52-acre farm near Selkirk, where she also breeds dogs. She says she’ll have 16 turbines within 2 kilometres of her home.
Rogers says 30 per cent of people suffer some ill effects from living close to turbines, and she thinks the county caved in.
“There’s no amount of money you could pay me or my family to be exposed to these emissions,” she said.
The county council supported a moratorium on turbines in the spring of 2011, she said. By fall, the deal had been struck with the wind companies.
“Wow. What a change,” she said. “The community felt betrayed. We were betrayed.”
“The people we thought were going to champion our interests, our concerns were saying: ‘What the heck, it’s coming, we’re going to get some money out of this.’ ”
Rogers doesn’t even see it as a short-term financial benefit. The wind companies’ money is coming out of higher power prices paid by the residents, she argues.
Hewitt has heard the accusation that the county sold out, that it accepted a bribe.
“It would be true if I had a choice,” he said. “A bribe implies that you had a choice to walk the other way.”
“In this case, the other way didn’t exist. The windmills were coming. Ultimately we would not have been able to stop them.”
Meanwhile, the wind companies say they’re willing to negotiate with other municipalities.
“We definitely see this as a model, taking into account the realities of each of our communities,” Samsung said in its statement. “We also have an $11.5 million community benefits fund in Chatham-Kent, where construction just began.”