Chalk one up for small-town Ontario. Dismissed, ignored, stripped of control, defeated before tribunals, blocked in the courts – when it comes to giant wind farms built to generate power, rural Ontario has been on a long losing streak.
Powerless for years to stop the wind farms, as the Liberal government plunged headlong into green energy with 2009 legislation that seized control from municipalities over where the highrise-sized turbine towers could be built, many of those same areas are finding the rules of the game have changed.
For starters, wind energy companies will have to buy peace to win new contracts, getting local communities – many of them deeply polarized by past projects – on board.
Gone, too, are the sweetheart deals that paid companies far more to generate power than consumers paid, piling up more red ink in a province that hasn’t balanced its books in years.
Instead, wind companies will have to bid on price.
And with Ontario’s next round of energy contracts this fall amounting to only 300 megawatts, enough to power about 90,000 homes, competition will be fierce and fought over a much smaller share of the spoils.
Wind power generates only a fraction of Ontario’s juice, but its political voltage has loomed large for years, especially in wind-swept Southwestern Ontario’s farm belt where many wind farms have sprouted.
The government’s sudden about-face is a “step forward,” said Mayor Kurtis Smith of Adelaide Metcalfe, a Middlesex County township that’s repeatedly been targeted for wind farms.
“It is a small victory,” said Smith, whose township made headlines under a previous council when police were called in to stop an anti-wind activist from videotaping council meetings and posting them on YouTube.
When she took over from Dalton McGuinty, Premier Kathleen Wynne promised to respond to the rural backlash that helped deprive the Liberals of a majority government in 2011, taking down several cabinet ministers.
Local sentiment, she vowed, would have to be considered before new wind farms would be green-lighted.
“For the first time since the Green Energy Act was passed, the local community felt there was a recognition by their new premier, who claimed all of Ontario mattered – that an ‘unwilling host’ community was going to count for something,” said Lambton County Warden Bev MacDougall.
MacDougall said the old attitude to opponents of industrial wind farms – and Southwestern Ontario, big, broad and breezy, quickly became a key location for Big Wind – was scorn.
“When you have the bulk of the people living in the GTHA (Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area), so far away from it, they can hold strong green values and say ‘Oh, for heaven’s sakes, it is wind, it is better than coal – what is the matter with people down there?’ ”
What soured many Southwestern Ontarians from the start was Queen’s Park seizing local planning control over the massive wind farms, MacDougall said. “To me, that was the first failure of the Green Energy Act.”
Then there was the sticky issue of cost.
Sweetheart deals with wind energy giants cost taxpayers and consumers alike.
Former Ontario auditor general Jim McCarter found the Green Energy Act, which replaced a competitive bidding process with generous 20-year contracts, wasted billions of dollars and drove up electricity costs.
The government justified its fast-track approach, known as the feed-in tariff (FIT) program, by saying it needed to act quickly to get a green energy industry going and create 40,000 jobs.
But McCarter’s report, in 2011, poked holes in those calculations, noting 30,000 of the jobs were in construction and would only last a few years.
He also noted studies elsewhere found that for every job created through renewable energy programs, two to four jobs are lost in other sectors of the economy because of higher electricity costs.
A year ago, the Wynne government called a time out.
Large industrial wind farms, it said, could no longer qualify for FIT contracts.
Instead, competitive bidding was back with a whole series of new twists.
For one, the buying spree in which Ontario signed on for 4,900 MW of wind energy was scaled back to just 300 MW for the next round this fall – enough for about five moderate-sized wind farms.
Twenty-one companies have been qualified to bid for a slice of the much smaller pie.
Among those is Capstone Infrastructure Corp., a publicly traded company that hopes its proposed wind farm west of Port Burwell, near Lake Erie, will win a contract in the bidding that closes Sept. 1.
“We do expect it to be a very competitive tender, with lots of the major developers pursuing projects they would like to submit,” said David Eva, Capstone’s vice-president.
Run by Ontario’s Independent Electricity System Operator, the bidding also requires the energy giants to show they’ve consulted with the local community and municipality about their plans.
No consultation, and the bid is pitched out without the envelope even being opened.
Energy companies can earn extra points if they can entice municipalities to pass resolutions of support, win the blessing of 75 per cent of landowners within or abutting a wind farm and sign up First Nation support.
Energy Minister Bob Chiarelli wasn’t available, his office said in response to interview requests. But spokesperson Dan Moulton said the government is “focused on ensuring our approach is balanced and considers the views of local communities.”
The Independent Electricity System Operator’s Shawn Cronkwright said the government “clearly heard” communities want a greater voice in wind energy.
“What we have tried to do in this is design an opportunity for them to provide that voice and try to encourage and support the projects they see as favourable,” said Cronkwright, the Crown corporation’s director of renewable procurement.
And this time, there’s no set price for what the province will pay for the electricity.
As part of their bids, companies have to say how much they’d sell their power for.
“We should expect to see lower prices, and projects that have community support should really have a leg up,” said Cronkwright.
With bids due in September. the Independent Electricity System Operator expects to announce the contracts by early December, he said.
Smith, the Adelaide Metcalfe mayor, said the new rules are an improvement but don’t go far enough.
Prodding wind farm developers to get agreements with municipalities in advance is definitely a step forward, he said, noting Adelaide Metcalfe still hasn’t reached a road-use agreement with wind giant NextEra under the old rules for a wind farm that has operated for more than a year.
“Fortunately, we did send them a bill for the road damages and they did send a cheque, so that is good.”
As for new community consultation requirements, he said, the first experience was a bit of a letdown.
Suncor, another industry giant, held an open house for its proposed Nauvoo Wind Farm, but only provided information on the project’s boundary and possible connections for transmission lines, he said.
“They didn’t give the wind turbine locations or the transmission routes, whether they are above or below ground. I would like to see more information,” Smith said.
While Lambton County’s MacDougall says the new system is better, it’s unlikely to satisfy rural residents stung by the old system that left them with no say over the industrialization of their communities.
Lambton’s resolution declaring itself an “unwilling host” for wind farms will remain in place, she said.
The same goes in Dutton-Dunwich in Elgin County, where the council put the question of wind farms to residents. They voted 84 per cent No vote, with more than 50 per cent participating. A major concern there is that a wind farm would hamper efforts to develop a housing subdivision, turning off potential buyers.
With a wind firm still planning to bid, despite the oppositiion, Mayor Cameron McWilliam said he hopes the new rules will count for something.
“It remains to be seen how this moves forward,” he said.
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Among those vying for the next round of contracts:
Hardy Creek Wind Energy Centre: (Middlesex and Lambton counties); up to 50 turbines, 100 megawatts (MW)
Northpoint 1 Wind Energy Centre: (Eastern Ontario): Township of North Frontenac, 35 to 50 turbines, 150 MW
Northpoint 2 Wind Energy Centre: (Eastern Ontario) Townships of Addington Highlands and North Frontenac, 35 to 100 turbines, 200 MW
30- to 40-MW project, 10 to 15 wind turbines, on existing Port Alma and Chatham wind farms.
Strong Breeze Wind Project, in Dutton-Dunwich Township in Elgin Country, 60 MW
Nine Mile Wind Farm, in Eastern Ontario South Dundas, 50 to 90 MW
Nauvoo Wind Power Project, 75 megawatts, Townships of Warwick and Brooke-Alvinston, Lambton County
Churchill wind project, 100 to 150 MW, in Enniskillen and Plympton-Wyoming, Lambton
Capstone Infrastructure Corp.
Erie Shores Wind Farm 2, up to 70 MW, within Township of Malahide and Bayham, Elgin
Sydenham Wind Power Project, Brooke-Alvinston and Enniskillen Townships, Lambton, up to 100 MW
Silver Centre Wind Project, West Timiskaming District, up to 120 MW
SWEP Development LP
Meadowvale Wind Farm, south of Wallaceburg, Chatham-Kent, 18 to 19 MW
Clachan Wind Farm, north of Duart, Chatham-Kent, 9 to 15 MW
Duart Wind Farm, west of Duart, 8-9 MW
Townsend Wind Farm, north of Jarvis, Haldimand County, 6-7 MW
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WHAT THEY SAID
“I am at least encouraged by a scoring system that has a recognition there are communities that just don’t want them (wind farms).”
— Bev MacDougall, Lambton County warden
“It is still lip service to the communities. The fact that land-use planning is still not there, like it is for any other project, is still a sore point in communities.”
— Jane Wilson, president, Wind Concerns Ontario, umbrella for anti-wind groups
“Meaningful community engagement and dialogue has always been a cornerstone of any successful wind project, and the Ontario government’s new process has ensured its importance in new procurements . . . ”
— Tim Weis, Canadian Wind Energy Association, representing wind energy companies
“We have seen manufacturers shutter their windows and businesses have been driven out of province in search of better energy rates. . . . This no-win situation does not change with a new procurement process because the facts remain the same – we do not need more wind energy because the demand just is not there.”
— MPP Lisa Thompson, Huron-Bruce, PC energy critic
“We argued right at the beginning that these renewable energy projects should be publicly owned or community-owned. . . . But this process does increase the ability of municipalities to get a benefit from the project, as well as in terms of local jobs and economic activity, so we see it as a useful step.”
— MPP Peter Tabuns, Toronto-Danforth, NDP energy critic
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