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New approach to green power

The province promised Thursday to give municipalities more opportunities to get involved in the creation of clean-energy projects.

But cities and towns that don’t want a wind or solar farm in their backyards still won’t be able to say no to them by denying zoning changes.

“The changes we’re making to the procurement process will provide municipalities with a stronger role going forward, but will not provide a veto,” Energy Ministry spokeswoman Kirby Dier said in an email.

The new approach “will engage municipalities from the beginning to identify appropriate locations and siting requirements for future large renewable energy projects,” Dier added.

The changes announced by Energy Minister Bob Chiarelli, a former Ottawa mayor, fall short of what some municipalities had been seeking earlier this year.

Neebing Mayor Ziggy Polkowski supported a Conservative bill that would restore the power of municipalities to approve or turn down zoning change proposals to accommodate energy projects.

“We can’t have these things being decided in Toronto – we have to have a say,” Polkowski has said.

When the Liberals brought in the Green Energy Act four years ago, clean-energy proponents started to bypass municipalities and deal directly with the province to determime project locations.

Though that didn’t change in Thursday’s announcement, Chiarelli said the province will “work with municipalities to determine a property tax rate increase for wind turbine towers’’ and “give priority to projects partnered or led by municipalities.”

The group opposing Horizon Wind’s proposal to build eight wind turbines on the Nor’Westers escarpment west of Thunder Bay on 7,000 hectares of city-owned land, said Thursday’s announcement “is a step in the right direction.”

But Nor’Wester Mountain Escarpment Protection Committee president John Beals wondered if the new approach could impact future input by interest groups into Horizon’s long-term plan for an additional eight turbines on the escarpment.

“Does this mean (Horizon) has to go back to square one? We don’t know,” said Beals.

The City of Thunder Bay appears to be locked into a 25-year lease with Horizon that allows for a 20-year extension on the 7,000 hectares (located in Neebing Township).

In April 2011, the city avoided a $126-million lawsuit by Horizon when city council voted 8-4 in favour of amendments to the original lease agreement for the land.

The Ministry of Environment last month deemed Horizon’s $50-million plan for the first eight turbines to be “complete.” The company has said it believes construction could begin as early this fall if permits are granted.

Thunder Bay Mayor Keith Hobbs, who has opposed the wind farm at its current location, was out of the city on business Thursday and couldn’t be reached.

The Association of Municipalities of Ontario praised Chiarelli’s announcement.

“Today’s announcement gives Ontario’s municipalities a better sense of how the province intends to approach large renewable energy projects differently, with greater local input and a focus on more willing communities,” AMO president Russ Power said in a news release.

“We’re looking forward to meaningful consultation with the province on these issues.”