Wind farm opponents are telling companies jockeying for new Ontario green energy contracts to enjoy the moment – it’ll likely be their last chance.
After a decade-long losing streak before environmental review tribunals and courts, activists trying to halt industrial wind farms say they sense the political ground is finally shifting in their favour now that power rates have become a hot urban issue and the Liberal government is taking notice.
“It looks like this will be the last. I don’t know how the government could possibly justify more (such contracts),” said Jane Wilson, president of Wind Concerns Ontario, a coalition of groups opposed to industrial wind farm development in the province.
Last week, in a move many critics linked to a stunning byelection loss in the Toronto area, Premier Kathleen Wynne’s government said it will scrap the Ontario portion of the HST on electricity bills, giving customers an eight-per-cent rebate and rural areas an even larger break.
The move comes less than a year after the government yanked a 10-per-cent subsidy it had paid on power bills to offset the costs of green energy.
Wilson said more people are now connecting their rising power bills with the province’s multi-billion-dollar spending on green energy projects at a time when Ontario is paying to export surplus electricity to the United States. She called on the Liberals to cancel the next round of wind farm development and walk away from any contracts where the developers have failed to meet deadlines.
Soaring power rates have come under a harsh spotlight in Ontario, with the province’s auditor-general this year reporting Ontarians paid $37 billion above market price for electricity over the last eight years because of government decisions to ignore its own planning process for new projects.
Bonnie Lysyk found the electricity component of power bills rose by 70 per cent from 2006 to 2014, with the province going against the advice of its own power planning authority, and warned power rates will keep climbing, costing consumers another $133 billion extra over the next 17 years.
In rural Southwestern Ontario, wind farms have become a lightning rod for opposition to Ontario’s plunge into green energy. Home to the largest wind farms in the province, and the most wind turbines, the region includes many areas that have declared themselves unwilling to take the projects, even though the government took away local control over where wind famrs can be built and ultimately calls the shots.
Protests, court action and political campaigns – the Liberals remain largely shut out of the region – haven’t stopped the move to green energy, which the province began in 2009 as it moved to phase out Ontario’s dirty coal-fired power plants.
At the government’s direction, Ontario’s Independent Electricity System Operator is now in the process of procuring up to 600 megawatts of new wind energy, equivalent to about 10 wind farms, as well as solar, waterpower and bioenergy.
Fifty-nine companies have submitted applications to qualify to bid on the contracts.
Former Liberal riding president turned anti-wind farm activist, John Laforet, advocated a strategy in 2011 of targeting Liberal candidates in rural ridings where wind turbines were unpopular.
The strategy was successful, with several Liberal cabinet ministers going down to defeat, including then-environment minister John Wilkinson in Perth-Wellington and then-agriculture Minister Carol Mitchell in Huron-Bruce.
But the Liberal grip on major urban centres has kept the party in power and its green energy policy intact.
Laforet said that urban concern over electricity costs changes the game.
“Fundamentally, the Green Energy Act used to be bad science and good political science but that’s no longer the case,” he said.
Laforet, principal at Broadway Strategy Group, said he has been approached by some individuals and is now doing polling to develop a campaign that would clearly spell out to urban voters the impact of the Liberal green energy policies on their hydro bills.
The goal of a popular campaign would be to create a situation where the Liberals would have to buckle, as they did when they ran into opposition to their plans for wind turbines in the Great Lakes, he said.
“There is an opportunity to use this as a wedge that could bleed them votes on the left and the right and blow them right out of office,” Laforet said.
While opposition to wind turbines in the past has been concentrated in rural and remote areas where the wind farms were built, largely Southwestern Ontario, Laforet said the recent plans for wind farms in eastern Ontario also caused a shift.
That put the wind farms in cottage country, making it a personal issue for some people in Toronto and Ottawa.
“They have awoken voices in the cities that are concerned about this now.”
In Huron-Bruce, home to some of the province’s largest wind farm developments, Conservative MPP Lisa Thompson launched an online petition calling for the province to bring down electricity costs.
Within a few days more than 6,000 had signed and many added comments about the high costs of wind turbines, solar contracts and the mismanagement of the green energy file, said Thompson, the Conservative environment critic at Queen’s Park.
“People are getting it,” she said.
While wind farm opponents are increasingly confident the green energy drive is about to stall, the Energy Ministry defended its record in a statement to The London Free Press, saying green investment attracted industry and created thousands of jobs.
The Free Press sought comment from Energy Mininister Glenn Thibeault, but the response came from a ministry spokesperson.
“We inherited an electricity system that had been badly neglected under the previous government. As families and businesses across Ontario remember, brown outs, black outs, and smog days put our economy and our people at risk. We took that dirty, unreliable electricity system and we made it clean – and one all of us can count on,” the ministry statement said.