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Rural communities not blown away by changes to Ontario’s Green Energy Act

If the idea behind Thursday’s changes to the Feed-in-Tariff program, the lynchpin of Ontario’s Green Energy Act, was to mollify the rural communities that rebelled against the Liberals in the last election, well then let’s look at now the news was received in the hinterlands.

“I just don’t know if it’s going to be very good for us,” a Middlesex county warden told the London Free Press.

“There’s not a lot of credibility here,” one activist told the Sarnia Observer. “Truly, did they change direction, or did they just put a new spin on it?”

Then there’s the mayor of Wainfleet, telling the St. Catharines Standard: “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.”

The skepticism is easy to understand. The changes announced by Energy Minister Bob Chiarelli, which will put a significant emphasis on approving only projects that have local support, would have been warmly received in the hundreds of communities that have fought the installation of wind turbines had they been brought in in the early days of the Green Energy Act. After the act was implemented in 2009, residents discovered that local objections to new developments were largely ignored as the McGuinty government dove headlong into a green energy future. As it stands, Thursday’s changes do nothing to alter the situation in the many communities that have protested wind-farm plans, where the developer already has a contract in place. So, as places from Norfolk County to Grey-Bruce to Prince Edward County line up to pass municipal resolutions that they are “unwilling hosts” to wind turbine developments, the Liberals are essentially saying that, although they admit that the turbine-siting process was flawed and unfair from the start, they won’t be going so far as to undo the mistakes already made.

The government can’t just go and rip up the contracts with various developers that the Ontario Power Authotrity has already handed out, Mr. Chiarelli said.

Of course, that’s exactly what happened with the gas plants in Oakville and Mississauga, at a cost of almost $600-million and counting. The double-standard is not lost on rural voters: raise a stink in the Liberal stronghold of greater Toronto, and the government was willing to cancel energy projects with seemingly no idea of the long-term costs. (And further, it put a moratorium on offshore wind development when the controversy over a development in Scarborough became too hot.) But when the fuss was raised in farm country, the Liberals were deaf to the noise.

This would all be just a lamentable, but unsurprising, case of a government giving favourable treatment to politically important ridings were the entire underpinning of the Liberals’ green energy strategy not also laying in tatters. Mr. Chiarelli acknowledged that the government will comply with a World Trade Organization ruling that scotched the domestic-content GEA requirement, which was intended to create a “green jobs” sector in Ontario. Some industry players say this isn’t a problem, because forcing developers to buy local for three years has allowed a renewables industry to develop here. But will it last? Now nothing is stopping a wind developer, for example, from sourcing parts from overseas.

And while the gas-plant schmozzle is a story about escalating costs, bungled document searches and the government’s remarkable inability to carry out the latter so it could explain the former, the Oakville and Mississauga controversies are also, at their root, about the GEA’s stated goal of closing down coal-fired energy plants. Because natural-gas plants were needed to pick up the slack, the government trundled down the path of replacing the Lakeview coal plant, among others, with gas plants and, well, you know how that all turned out. Dwight Duncan, who was energy minister at the time the contracts were awarded for Oakville and Mississauga, told a Toronto business audience this week that, despite the drubbing the Liberals have taken over those files, and the apologies and the absolutions, “the big problem I think we still have is the western GTA doesn’t have enough power.”

Right. There’s that. The rush to add thousands of megawatts of wind energy to Ontario’s grid, at well above market rates, hasn’t replaced coal, but only created a new source of energy that is unreliable and often well removed from where electricity is needed. Consider that in March one of the province’s electricity agencies solved a dispute with wind developers by agreeing to compensate them when wind power is shut off from the grid. The step was necessary because wind power is often generated at times when demand is low. So now Ontario will pay wind generators for energy that it isn’t even using, produced by turbines in communities that didn’t want them, and were installed under a set of rules that it has since admitted was a mistake.

Those critics who don’t sound terribly assuaged? There’s good reason for that.