Anger. Defeat. Disappointment.
Just a few of the emotions Thursday’s announcement from Ontario Energy Minister Bob Chiarelli evoked in Wainfleet Mayor April Jeffs.
The petite brunette attended the CanSIA Solar Ontario Conference armed with a massive question that she wanted answered.
“So, if I have an existing project in my municipality, nothing you say applies?”
It was a question she said she asked adamantly to the minister after he shared news that local governments will get a voice in major new wind and solar projects.
Chiarelli’s response was that no, the changes would not apply.
The minister 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 he said contracts already awarded for wind projects can’t be changed without risking pricey 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.
“I got to hear it straight from the horse’s mouth,” Jeffs said, feeling empowered in being able to stand up for her community.
While seemingly good news for municipalities facing future projects, for those currently clashing over turbine installations, including Wainfleet, the news left much to be desired.
The township has been battling against a planned wind development for some time and when rumours began swirling that an announcement was in the works, Jeffs couldn’t help but feel cautiously optimistic.
“It got us all worked up,” she admitted, adding talk went back and forth between Wainfleet’s aldermen about the pending news.
“There was a big build-up and then a big letdown.”
She’s pleased the government is taking steps to give municipalities more of a voice, but said it comes too little too late for her township.
“It shows they’re listening, but it doesn’t solve the problem.”
Jeffs believes the news will not calm rural communities, as she thinks the government intends, but rather “make people angrier.”
“They’ve just dangled the carrot and pulled it away.”
Still, Jeffs is determined to continue the fight in her municipality.
“It’s not over ’til it’s over.”
The announcement shows there is room for change, she said.
“It’s opened a door – just a little crack for us, but I think there’s opportunity in there somewhere.”
The only impact Thursday’s news will have on the township is benefit from a property tax hike on wind turbines Chiarelli also announced.
“All I can say is it will be significant,” the minister 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 believes giving local government the authority to veto renewable energy projects would solve many of the battles rural communities are facing.
If the government is so confident it will have community buy-in, putting power in the hands of municipalities shouldn’t be an issue, she said.
“It would save everyone the trouble.”
Tom Rankin knows firsthand the trouble that can arise when a municipality opposes an already-approved wind development.
The co-owner of Wainfleet Wind Energy has been clashing with the municipality over the installation of wind turbines in the township, even having the case go before the court.
Despite the difficulties his company has had, Rankin said he supports the move to give municipalities a bigger voice.
“I’m always for municipalities having more authority,” he told The Tribune.
“I’d rather have the municipality involved at the ground floor instead of later on. I’d rather the project be turned down on Day 1 rather than approved (at a higher lever) and then fought.”
Rankin was “never particularly happy” with the process as it stands, so changes are welcomed.
He said he “wouldn’t mind” seeing a process in place that allows municipalities to turn down such developments and the proponent to appeal to the Ontario Municipal Board.
Niagara Region Wind Corp. spokesperson Randi Rahamim said his company, which plans to build 77 industrial wind turbines in west Niagara, supports the expanded financial benefits to local municipalities that will be provided.
“We’re a huge believer in that,” she said.
It’s a position NRWC has taken for some time, even providing a payment of sorts through its community vibrancy fund for hosting the developments.
“Municipalities’ perspectives have always been important to us,” Rahamim stressed.
“The NRWC is committed to giving back a portion of the project revenue to the local municipality.”
A $12-million share of wind turbine energy revenues offered by NRWC was turned down by West Lincoln councillors, who are opposed to the development, only days ago.
The company has already reached deals for community vibrancy funds in Lincoln and Haldimand. But after negotiating over the fund since last year, West Lincoln voted unanimously not to accept the money Monday night.
The Tribune attempted to reach Tory Leader and Niagara West-Glanbrook MPP Tim Hudak for comment on Thursday’s announcement, but was instead referred to the party’s energy critic, Vic Fedeli.
The Nipissing MPP called the announcement “very disappointing,” as decision-making power was not returned to municipalities.
“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.”
Fedeli recalled his time as mayor in Thunder Bay in 2009 when the Green Energy Act was issued.
“I remember opening the envelope with councillors and remember reading that our decision-making power had been stripped.”
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.
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