The Ontario government has betrayed rural municipalities by approving new wind farms in places that have explicitly voted against them, mayors say – including just east of Ottawa.
“Since we declared ourselves unwilling hosts, we thought we had it made,” says François St. Amour, mayor of The Nation Municipality. “Because there was some talk in the last provincial election that they would honour municipalities that declared themselves unwilling. But I guess that was just another electoral promise.”
The agency that makes the province’s deals for renewable power is readying a contract for a 32-megawatt wind farm there, one of a bunch of bids from private generating companies it’s just accepted. The other in Eastern Ontario is the biggest of the group, a 100-megawatt project in North Stormont.
Both Eastern Ontario councils took votes in 2015 to say they did not want the wind farms on their territories.
The province’s Green Energy Act, meant to kickstart an Ontario industry in manufacturing and maintaining renewable energy technology, gave virtually no say to local governments on where wind and solar farms might go. Many rural residents believed, and still do, they’re being sacrificed for the electricity needs of cities.
The government pulled back. Under the province’s new rules, municipalities don’t get veto power over renewable energy projects but they do formally get asked to say whether new wind or solar farms are welcome or not. Ottawa’s city council regularly votes its formal support for small solar projects, which is worth extra points when would-be operators submit their bids.
“It will be virtually impossible for a wind turbine, for example, or a wind project, to go into a community without some significant level of engagement,” energy minister and Ottawa MPP Bob Chiarelli told a legislature committee in 2013.
“Engagement.” Not “agreement.”
“We will not give a veto, and no jurisdiction gives a veto, to a municipality on any kind of public infrastructure. That should have been clear to them,” Chiarelli says. Wind farms in rural Ontario are like tall buildings downtown, he says: immediate neighbours may hate them but they’re still needed.
Thirteen of the 16 new contracts got local council approval. All of the ones that didn’t are wind farms – the two here and one in Dutton-Dunwich, between London and Windsor, where residents took the issue up in a referendum and voted 84 per cent against. Two wind farms are going to Chatham-Kent, whose council voted to support them.
“They’ve put municipalities on the sidelines. It seems, though, that municipalities get most of the grief,” St. Amour says. His council first voted in favour of the wind farm in The Nation without a whole lot of thought, he says, treating it like the solar farms councillors have welcomed in the past. Councillors changed their minds after hearing from residents.
“It was rough on council last summer. It was really, really rough. Especially because we can’t do much about it. We thought declaring unwilling hosts was it,” St. Amour says.
Mayor Dennis Fife of North Stormont says his council thought the same. “At one time, the government said that if you came out with something saying you were an unwilling host, that would be respected, but that wasn’t the case,” he says.
The wind farm in North Stormont, near Finch, will probably have between 30 and 50 windmills. “You’re going to see all of them. There’s the health aspect that people are worried about. Noise, blinking lights, all of that,” Fife says.
The “health aspect” is the subject of persistent study – whether vibrations from windmills or electrical fields they generate do any long-term damage. The typical finding is no, though living right next to a wind farm can be unpleasant. Turning windmills do make noise, the blades can make flickering shadows, and lots of people think they spoil a good view.
“Some of the claims by the opponents are pretty far-fetched, some are true. It does affect property values, though, that’s certain,” St. Amour says.
Both mayors say they’re all but helpless now.
“I’m pretty sure at this point all we can do is follow the regulatory process and try and work with them. I’m positive there’s no way of stopping it now,” says Fife.
Chiarelli says each project still needs separate environmental approvals, which will likely take several years.
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