In the coming days, Ontario electricity officials will release new rules for host community engagement for wind energy companies seeking to build wind farms in the province. It marks a pivotal moment for a province that has lost the puck on this file but is trying hard to get it back. The problem is that there are six years of momentum and mistrust to reverse. Recent events suggest that it will not be an easy task.
In November, Health Canada released results of an extensive study of potential health impacts from wind turbine noise. As was reported widely at the time, researchers found no direct causal relation between noise levels and either self-reported or measured health impacts. From a social science perspective, the strangest finding from the Health Canada study was that people in Ontario were 3.3 times more likely to express annoyance over wind turbine noise compared to those exposed to the same wind turbine sound levels in Prince Edward Island. Clearly, there are factors above and beyond the physical characteristics of this technology that make Ontario neighbours of wind projects particularly unhappy. The biggest is a lack of trust in the siting process for wind farms.
Problems with siting wind farms were catalyzed by the Green Energy Act put in place six years ago. The act was very successful in attracting investment and interest from wind energy developers. Fixed 20-year contracts at guaranteed rates were part of the attraction, but just as important was a streamlined approval process that reduced the approval authority of municipal governments and eliminated the need for developers to negotiate for local zoning approval. Residents of host communities had very limited opportunity to influence development decisions.
This lack of influence quickly translated into a drop in support for wind energy locally and generally. Only a quarter of residents in communities faced with hosting wind turbines are supportive, according to recent Ontario research.
In the general population, support has slipped from 89% of Ontarians supportive of wind energy in a 2007 Ipsos Reid poll to 74% support, according to a 2014 poll conducted by the University of Michigan. Not a precipitous change, but significant nonetheless. Another significant measure of a lack of trust in wind energy is the 89 municipal governments who have signed on to “unwilling host” declarations. This represents about a fifth of all municipalities in the province.
Now, under the new rules, wind companies that want to sell power to the province will have to competitively bid for the opportunity. Bids that include municipal council support and that can show agreements – not only with landowners hosting turbines – but also with all of their neighbours will be favoured. The proposal to favour bids with agreement of landowners abutting a turbine is not sitting well with developers. They worry this gives too much power to the “last man standing.” It is likely that if such rules existed five years ago, dozens of wind energy projects in the province would not have proceeded.
And that is the dilemma Ontario’s electricity managers face: How to respect public involvement while still making effective development decisions? The province is hoping that the new rules for community engagement and setting up local advisory committees to participate in new regional energy planning discussions will return some control to the file. Officials desperately want to share the responsibility for selling the need for new, large generation plants. The hope is that by involving urban and rural municipalities as well as community leaders, the province will experience less wind energy opposition and also less lobbying for gas plant cancellations.
That is the theory. However, there is substantial pent-up frustration in host communities that still have to face new wind projects approved under the old rules. The changes are unlikely to satisfy this segment of the population. It took six years for the province to lose the trust of host communities; it will take at least that long to start building momentum in the other direction.
Stewart Fast is a postdoctoral fellow in the Queen’s Institute for Energy and Environmental Policy, Queen’s University. Warren Mabee is an associate professor in the Queen’s Institute for Energy and Environmenal Policy, Queen’s University
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