NAPANEE, Ont. – Canadians know Napanee, a port town of 16,000 near Kingston, for two things. First, Sir John A. Macdonald opened a law office here before he became Canada’s first prime minister. Second, Napanee is the home town of singer Avril Lavigne.
Today Napanee is earning a distinction with which some citizens are less comfortable: very big producer, per capita, of electricity.
Napanee already has the Lennox gas-fired electricity generating station on its waterfront. Next to that plant, TransCanada Corp. is building a new 900 megawatt gas-fired power plant – the very facility that Oakville, Ont., a Toronto suburb, did not want, and that the Ontario government cancelled in 2010, half-built. Napanee also boasts two big solar installations: Little Creek and Sandhurst Shores.
On top of all this, Electricité de France, which calls itself the world’s electrician, has come knocking. The French giant wants to build a 60-megawatt solar project on 300 acres of farmland it will lease from three farmers in Napanee.
The big solar plan has rankled some locals, particularly after the French firm paid neighbours for their support. The opposition in Napanee is a microcosm of the emotional discussions that ignite in small municipalities across Canada as big companies propose projects to fulfill government objectives for renewable energy. Most of the electricity will flow to cities, say rural residents, so why not put the solar panels on city buildings, rather than on fertile farmland?
“Someone needs to come out and show the municipalities why we should be giving up our prime farmland, in a dollars and cents way, so we can understand why it is the best thing for all,” says Marg Isbester, Napanee’s deputy mayor.
Last fall the Ontario government put out a request for proposals for 300 megawatts of wind power, 140 megawatts of solar power, 50 megawatts from bioenergy (such as power derived from animal manure) and 75 megawatts from water. The province will pay a maximum of 27.5¢ per kilowatt-hour for non-rooftop solar power.
The 42 qualified applicants have until next month to submit their proposals. Alexandra Campbell, a spokeswoman for Ontario’s Independent Electricty System Operator, says press clippings that cross her desk suggest a flurry of debate about renewable energy is underway across the province.
Electricité de France, which trades on the Paris stock exchange, had revenues of €73-billion last year serving 38 million clients worldwide. EDF is no stranger to Canada: Last month it inaugurated the first phase of its Rivière du Moulin wind project in the Saguenay region north of Québec City, which on completion will be the biggest wind generation facility in Canada – 175 wind turbines producing 350 megawatts of electricity. By the end of 2017, EDF says it will have in service 1,600 megawatts of wind and solar projects in Canada.
EDF’s Napanee project hit the front page of the Napanee Beaver last month after Janet Cruji, a local resident, wrote a letter to town council. Cruji said a man had come to see her mother and told her that her neighbours planned to put “a few” solar panels in their field, and asked her mother to sign a letter saying she would not dispute the project.
“Then an information letter came in the mail last week showing the large scale project covering hundreds of acres!!!!” Cruji wrote. “We were shocked to say the least and felt deceived. We have since learned that those who were not so quick to sign have been offered $2,500 over the next three years if they will also agree to sign this non dispute form.”
Cruji noted that until recently her grandfather grew corn on the land, which the family sold a few years ago. “This is the worst possible place to host Napanee’s newest solar project,” she writes.
Napanee town councillor Max Kaiser agrees with her. Kaiser farms 1,100 acres around the city, growing corn, soybeans and winter wheat, mainly to feed his 27,000 egg-laying hens. He laments that the best farmland in Canada is now buried under cities. Kaiser supports solar energy: He has signed a contract to put solar panels on his chicken barns, which will produce 300 kilowatts of electricity. He simply does not want solar panels to cover good farmland.
“Put the solar panels over parking lots. Put ’em over arenas, places where land has already been lost,” he says. “Three hundred acres is food for 300 or 350 people, lost in favour of charging their cellphones and laptops.
“We are losing food production areas because of the policies of government.”
Isbester says she is dismayed by the persistence of EDF.
“This obviously is a very lucrative business,” she says. “They have been very aggressive not just with council, but with me.” She complained to EDF that the company had unfairly paid some residents, and not others, for their support of the solar project.
Kevin Campbell, a senior developer for the French firm, replied to Isbester via email that neighbours of the project “received a gift card as a token of appreciation for their time.”
“We are now proactively and retroactively approaching all neighbours who previously signed the form confirming their support for the project to provide them the same offer so no one is left out of the shared benefits,” Campbell added.
He noted that his project will not permanently take farmland out of production. Ontario, in its guidelines for solar projects, forbids developers from using what it calls “prime agricultural areas.” Campbell concedes that “there are crops on the land right now, corn and beans” where he wants to put solar panels.
“We are leasing the land,” he said. “These solar projects will only be operational for 20 or 30 years. The land is not lost forever. This is a temporary use.”
EDF has offered to pay the town of Napanee $2,000 per megawatt per year to go towards community benefits, which the company says will add up to $60,000 to $120,000 a year. That is a better offer than the company has made previously. For example, EDF does not pay the city of Ottawa anything (other than commercial and industrial taxes) to host its sprawling Galetta solar project in the northern reaches of the city, near Arnprior, which creates enough power for 7,000 homes.
The French firm is making deals elsewhere, too; In exchange for Chatham-Kent’s support for a proposed 100-megawatt wind farm project, the company will pay the southwest Ontario town up to $8 million in benefits over 20 years, including a 15 per cent equity partnership. Neighbouring Leamington wants no part of that wind farm deal.
In Napanee, Darren Jaynes is one of three landowners who have signed deals with EDF. EDF has an option to place solar panels on 160 acres of his 500-acre farm; 80 of those acres have crops on them right now.
“It’s wet and it’s shallow,” Jaynes says of the property on which the panels would go, referring to the minimal layer of topsoil above the bedrock. “Along comes this solar company. Now they are making it my most productive land.”
“You won’t see the solar panels, because the parcel of land is half a kilometre from the nearest house,” he adds. “I don’t want to see a solar farm either. I don’t think they are all that attractive.”
Tom Timmins, chair of renewable energy at Toronto law firm Gowlings Lafleur Henderson, can’t quite fathom opposition to solar energy.
“This solar project doesn’t make noise. It doesn’t swing through the air like a wind turbine. It doesn’t have a smokestack. It has no emissions. It’s pretty innocuous. I can’t think of anything with less impact.”
Napanee council has set Aug. 18 for a meeting to vote on the French solar plan. Isbester says all but one local who has approached her oppose the solar installation. She has not yet made up her own mind.
“Somebody just hasn’t shown me how the math works,” she says. “We are still going ahead tearing up good farmland. But I still have a tough time saying to a landowner that they cannot do what they want with their land.”
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