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Green energy changes not retroactive: Minister

Local governments will get a voice in major new wind and solar projects, says Ontario Energy Minister Bob Chiarelli – but the existing ones are set in stone.

Chiarelli announced Thursday the province will replace the existing feed-in tariff procurement process with a new system giving municipalities a say on where turbines go and whether they want them.

But, speaking to reporters at the Canadian Solar Industries Association’s Solar Ontario conference in Niagara Falls, he said contracts already awarded for wind projects can’t be changed without risking pricy legal battles.

“We cannot continue to do what was done in Oakville and Mississauga,” he said. The government racked up massive fees slashing two gas plants there.

But the announcement stung for Wainfleet Mayor April Jeffs, whose township has clashed against a planned wind development. She said she came in cautiously optimistic but left dismayed.

“We knew it wasn’t going to be ideal, but I thought we were going to be able to take away something from this,” she said.

“From what I’m hearing, we’ll get nothing.”

Wainfleet would, however, benefit from a property tax hike on wind turbines Chiarelli also announced.

“All I can say is it will be significant,” he said of the hike.

Chiarelli said the new process will resemble a request for proposals and require developers to work with local governments to site projects out first. The existing process means siting happens after approval.

He said there must be a level of engagement and acceptability to the project for municipalities’ tastes.

But he stopped short of handing them the power to say no altogether. He said the province could not meet its energy needs if every municipality refused to accept energy projects.

“It would not be possible… to have an absolute veto,” he said.

And he said new input powers can’t be shoehorned into existing projects. “That changes the contract.”

Jeffs said she hoped Wainfleet’s turbine fight informed the province’s changes.

“It does show that they are beginning to listen for future projects, she said.

“For us, I’m hugely disappointed… absolutely nothing he said will have any impact on Wainfleet.”

Niagara Region Wind Corporation spokeswoman Randi Rahamim applauded Chiarelli’s commitment to green energy. And she said the corporation supports the introduction of new funding tools for municipalities.

She said much of what was announced is for new projects, though the wind corporation has stuck to many of the directives anyway.

The wind company, she said, chose Niagara because both the Region and West Lincoln had policies on the books supportive of green energy.

“We’re still forging ahead,” Rahamim said of the west Niagara wind project. “We’re looking forward to it.”

Nipissing MPP Vic Fedeli, the Progressive Conservatives’ energy critic, called the announcement “very disappointing.

“They made the announcement they want to work with communities, but the rules remain the same…. They said they were going to listen to municipalities, but they didn’t,” Fedeli said of the Liberal government.

“They did not restore local power … They’ve learned no lessons from all their past sins.”

While a zoning meeting may be required to have a Tim Hortons built in town, no municipal approval is required to have a “500-foot-high wind turbine built 550 metres from someone’s home,” Fedeli said.

The communities that have had wind energy projects “forced on them” are now bound to companies who’ve signed 20-year contracts, he said.

“It’s like the Liberals opened a treasure chest and said ‘scoop the bounty as long as you can.’”

The Minister, Fedeli added, has essentially announced the chest is now empty.

– With files from Maryanne Firth, The Welland Tribune