After years of dismissing rural opposition to wind turbines, Ontario’s Liberal government is belatedly trying to defuse the problem. Its efforts may be too little. They are definitely late.
In cities, the giant, industrial, three-blade windmills are back of mind. When, as has happened in Toronto, urban voters do object to wind turbines the Liberal government is quick to back off.
But most wind farms are slated for rural Ontario. And here, the government, until now, has been unbending.
It refused to accept persistent claims from local residents that wind farms put their health at risk. It overruled municipalities that tried to regulate or ban turbines.
Instead, in virtually all cases, the Liberals sided with the big, private generating companies seeking to establish these profitable wind farms.
No wonder then that the Liberals were virtually wiped out in rural Ontario during the last election. Wind turbines helped to deprive them of their last footholds.
The new premier, Kathleen Wynne, has been trying to fix that.
But the Wynne government’s efforts to date are grudgingly minor. A new policy outlined by Energy Minister Bob Chiarelli last week would require large wind-farm proponents to “work directly with” municipalities on where to locate any new turbines.
But there is no suggestion that municipalities would be given the power to veto or otherwise regulate schemes they dislike.
Municipalities would also be permitted to tax wind farms more heavily. And when considering small projects of up to 500 kilowatts generating capacity, the government has promised to give priority to those in which municipalities have a monetary stake.
In short, the government is handing municipal politicians a few goodies in the hope of bringing them onside.
But in a CBC radio interview following his announcement, Chiarelli made it clear: Queen’s Park still reserves the right to authorize more large-scale, private wind farms, even if local residents and councils are opposed.
Ironically, the government continues to defend its green energy policy at a time when, in one important regard, it is no longer relevant.
As first envisioned, the Liberals’ Green Energy Act was part of a bold industrial strategy.
By subsidizing wind and solar power, the government hoped to break Ontario’s dependence on carbon-emitting coal.
Equally important, however, was a rule that required 60 per cent of all equipment used by solar and wind generators to be Ontario-made. The aim here was to create a vibrant, green manufacturing sector.
Last month, in a devastating blow to the Liberal industrial strategy, that 60 per cent domestic content requirement was ruled invalid by a World Trade Organization appeal panel. Ontario, the WTO said, may not prevent private power generators from buying foreign-made equipment.
The government still talks optimistically about Ontario green manufacturers holding their own against cheap offshore imports. We shall see how that works out.
As for the politics of wind, Chiarelli may have succeeded in soothing the egos of municipal politicians. But at a popular level, the anger over turbines shows no sign of abating.
Indeed, for a government trying to present itself and its wind-turbine allies as sensitive to the needs of ordinary people, matters just keep getting worse.
This week, the London Free Press reported that the Florida-based energy giant NextEra Energy is suing a local anti-turbine activist and rock garden enthusiast named Esther Wrightman.
Wrightman’s alleged offence is that on her blog she referred to the company, which has proposed wind turbine projects in the London, Ont., area, as NextTerror.
In its statement of claim, which has not been proven in court, NextEra says it “has committed no acts of terror or violence.”
The London Free Press calls it a David versus Goliath battle. Almost certainly, that is how this will be viewed in the countryside – with the Liberal government firmly on Goliath’s side.
Thomas Walkom’s column appears Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday.
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