Kathleen Wynne’s first visit to Chatham-Kent as premier was surprisingly quiet considering it was to celebrate green energy, which has generated much opposition.
Despite discussion on social media about protesting her visit, nothing materialized when Wynne toured a solar panel installation at Jim and Janet Nauta’s farm near Blenheim, before heading to Chatham to address the annual meeting of AGRIS Solar Co-operative.
It was the Liberals that took away most of the decision-making from communities for approving renewable energy projects, under their Green Energy Act, but Wynne indicated the pendulum is swinging the other way.
“If I could rollback the clock and we could have that kind of involvement from the beginning, I would do that” the premier said.
She noted the government has changed the rules to have more community involvement.
However, Wynne didn’t provide many specifics. She said it’s about making sure community willingness is taken into account to host these projects and there is buy-in . . . “rather than being in a position of reacting to a contract once it’s already in place.”
When asked if there will be much opportunity for buy-in with so many turbines projects already built, Wynne said: “It’s a big province . . . there are projects being looked at in many parts of the province.”
She believes if better buy-in is achieved, “the attitudes will start to shift.”
While industrial turbine projects have raised the ire of many, solar projects have proceeded with relative calm.
AGRIS Solar Co-operative, the first farmer-owned green energy co-op in Ontario, has been followed by 70 others.
Jim Campbell, AGRIS secretary, said, “a solar unit is pretty innocuous, it doesn’t take up much space, nobody can see it from the neighbours . . . so we don’t get the neighbourhood reaction that other kinds of installations get.”
He said AGRIS, which has 231 solar panels dotting virtually every county west of Toronto, received news Wednesday that approval has been granted for permits to build 500 new units.
Campbell said these will be constructed in 10-acre “solar gardens” containing 50 solar panels, to be located in the Temiskaming area in northeastern Ontario.
This will complete the projects AGRIS plans to build, Campbell said.
“We met our objective of building a co-op of 750 members and so we’re really just building out what our original vision was,” he said.
Campbell noted 90% of members are farmers who each put up $20,000, adding there is no corporate investment, and money was borrowed from Farm Credit Corporation to go forward.
Wynne said she would like to see this community investment transferred to wind turbines.
“This is the kind of model that I think is the best for communities, when people have a vested interest and they feel like they’re part of the project.”
However, the province’s green energy plan has been criticized for increasing energy costs, hindering business expansion and attraction.
Wynne said what she hears from business is Ontario has a competitive tax regime, a well-educated workforce, and a government willing to partner and work with them.
She said higher costs on energy bills are due to investments needed to upgrade the electricity grid, noting 10,000-kilometres of transmission line has been built or replaced.
Wynne said the Liberals found the electrical system to be in “disarray” and neglected when coming into office in 2003.
As for Wednesday’s announcement to drop to debt retirement charge off residential hydro bills by 2016, she said it was a pre-budget announcement.
There has been much speculation the upcoming budget could trigger a spring election.
Wynne said she hopes one of the opposition parties supports the budget, but added if that doesn’t happen “then we’ll go to the people of the province.”
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