Cindy Sutch, who lives amid the rolling hills of the Oak Ridges Moraine, about 45 kilometres northeast of Oshawa, is a vocal advocate for the preservation of southern Ontario’s “rain barrel.”
And like most environmentalists, she also supports efforts to reduce the province’s reliance on fossil fuels.
But recently, a handful of wind energy projects proposed for the moraine have thrown this pair of ordinarily simpatico beliefs into conflict.
“If you take a look at the destruction of bird habitat and beautiful old trees, and pouring tons of concrete and truckloads of gravel to put these projects in,” Sutch said, “how is that green?”
In the war over renewable energy, environmentalists once stood together, united against opponents who didn’t believe in climate change or the value of cutting greenhouse gases to address it. But recently, a raft of wind and solar farms proposed for ecologically sensitive areas has created a schism among their ranks.
While many self-proclaimed environmentalists continue to champion the virtues of Ontario’s Green Energy Act, which jump-started the province’s renewable energy industry, others are taking the somewhat awkward position of opposing projects billed as green.
According to Ontario Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner, many of these green-versus-green conflicts are rooted in the fact the province has put commercial interests before those of local communities.
The result, he said, are “inappropriate” sites for renewable energy projects – and duelling environmental concerns.
Schreiner confronted this uncomfortable dilemma in Prince Edward County, where naturalists approached him with concerns about the impact Gilead Power’s Ostrander Point wind turbine project would have on the habitat of an endangered turtle.
“When I had those folks calling me up, saying, ‘Hey, can you help me fight a wind project?’ I was like, ‘What are you talking about? We’re for wind energy,’” he said.
However reluctantly, he dug a little deeper, ultimately siding with the opposition.
The Environmental Review Tribunal revoked the province’s approval of the project earlier this month, ruling it would cause “serious and irreversible harm to Blanding’s turtle.”
“I have very mixed feelings about it,” Schreiner said. “But there are certain areas where I think we should say no to development – it should be no to subdivisions, no to dumps and no to wind projects.”
When it was approved in 2009, the Green Energy Act took control over projects away from municipalities, in large part to stop myopic local interests from limiting the expansion of wind and solar, according to David Donnelly, a Toronto lawyer who helped write an early draft of the act.
Donnelly said the Ostrander Point case, where there was a “genuine environmental impact,” is somewhat of an exception.
In most instances, he said the pushback from environmentalists stems from esthetic concerns, or the misguided belief that all protected areas should be off-limits to wind and solar farms.
“I do have misgivings about environmental groups that want to say something is bad for the environment but then can’t deliver on some science,” said Donnelly, who has often fought quarries and residential developments in protected areas.
“These protected spaces will be deserts if we don’t get it right on renewable energy,” he said.
Because of the nature of the footprint of renewable energy projects, they are exempt from the multiple layers of approvals often required for other types of developments, which are often constrained by zoning bylaws and official plans. (In some protected areas like the Oak Ridges Moraine, a land-use conservation plan limits the spots where renewable energy projects, as well as quarries and golf courses, may be located.)
To get the go-ahead, projects must first receive a contract from the Ontario Power Authority, which operates under the purview of the Ministry of Energy, before being sent to the Ministry of Environment for approval.
Of the projects that it has reviewed since 2009, the Environment ministry has green-lit about 100 solar, wind and bioenergy proposals. Only six applications were returned, withdrawn or deemed incomplete.
In May, Ontario Energy Minister Bob Chiarelli announced that proponents of large-scale green energy projects that partner with municipalities would be given top priority.
Projects without local support, meanwhile, will be shuffled to the bottom of the pile, said Beckie Codd-Downey, spokeswoman for Chiarelli.
“We have strict environmental regulations in place to protect the environment. On the other hand, we are working directly with communities to increase local control over the siting of renewable energy projects,” Codd-Downey said.
So far, however, the new rules haven’t served to unite the divided environmentalist camp.
With several municipalities passing resolutions in recent weeks indicating they will be “unwilling” hosts to future renewable energy projects, Donnelly is concerned that the changes could stall the expansion of green energy.
“As an environmentalist, I’m disappointed that renewable energy is being singled out for accommodating political interference in what should be a provincial facility siting process,” he said. “Nuclear power plants and hydroelectric dams aren’t afforded the same consideration.”
Schreiner, meanwhile, questions whether the amendments – which include increased tax incentives for host communities – will be enough to facilitate buy-in from municipalities.
“The province has taken a few steps in the right direction, but the bottom line is the easiest way to get community participation is to simply require a local ownership component,” he said.
And because the new rules don’t apply retroactively, Schreiner said, “It still raises concerns about projects in the pipeline.”
Sutch is among those planning to gather this week on a farm in Scugog, next to the planned site of Illumination Solar, the first large-scale green energy project on the moraine to receive approval from the Ministry of Environment.
Sutch, who sits on the board of directors of the non-profit group Save The Oak Ridges Moraine (STORM), worries that this project, and a handful of wind projects proposed for the moraine will “open the floodgates for hundreds more.”
“I can’t help wonder if this green space is going to become an infrastructure corridor for Southern Ontario,” said Debbie Gordon, outreach co-ordinator at STORM. “Development is development whether it has been painted with a green brush or not.”
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