It plunged Ontario headlong into green energy nearly a decade ago, making Southwestern Ontario the province’s Ground Zero for costly wind energy projects that have divided many communities and become a lightning rod for soaring electricity prices.
But with Ontario’s Liberal government facing certain defeat in Thursday’s provincial election, and even Premier Kathleen Wynne herself admitting the Liberals’ 15-year run in office is over, the question now is what would a Progressive Conservative or a New Democratic Party government do with green energy?
The answers, say a veteran industry analyst, aren’t exactly clear.
Both the PCs and the NDP are “a little bit sketchy on the specifics of the renewable energy story,” said Tom Adams, an electricity consultant and researcher.
Only a small portion of Ontario’s electricity supply, green energy quickly became a flashpoint as costs and opposition soared when the Liberals signed up wind and solar producers, including large energy giants, to lucrative, long-term contracts paying them far more than what consumers pay for power.
Adding insult to injury in wind-blown Southwestern Ontario, where many communities declared themselves “unwilling hosts” for the mega-projects, the government also stripped municipalities of local control over where such energy projects could be located under its Green Energy Act in 2009.
Wynne promised a more sensitive approach than her predecessor, Dalton McGuinty, but a Chicago-based company’s wind farm was still imposed on one Southwestern Ontario community, Dutton Dunwich in Elgin County, even after it voted overwhelmingly against wind turbines in a referendum.
The Liberals’ embrace of green energy came as they moved to close the last of Ontario’s dirty coal-fired power plants, including the Lambton generating station near Sarnia, and to make needed investments in the power system they insist were neglected for decades by governments of all stripes in Ontario.
Southwestern Ontario quickly became home to the largest wind farms and the most wind turbines.
Doug Ford’s PCs say they’d scrap the Green Energy Act, slap a moratorium on new energy contracts and try to renegotiate existing ones if they can. They’d also restore local decision-making over the projects.
Adams say he agrees with the PC plan to scrap the legislation, but said it’s deeply intertwined now with how Ontario’s power system works and the PCs haven’t explained how they’d replace it.
“You simply can’t rip it up, you have to actually replace it with something,” he said.
Adams said the NDP has had a consistent record supporting expanded renewable energy projects, noting they voted with the Liberals to pass the Green Energy Act. The difference between the NDP and Liberals is that NDP wants the government, not the private sector, to develop green energy, he said.
But Adams also points to inconsistencies in the NDP message on its hydro plan, saying some days they say there will be a rate reduction of up to 30 per cent for some customers and other days, it’s a 30-per-cent rate cut for everyone.
“Where they do attempt to explain how that 30 per cent is going to come about, their explanations are nonsense,” Adams said.
Soaring electricity prices were an Achilles Heel for the Liberals, dogged by business and household hardship stories. In late 2016, Wynne apologized for not paying “close enough attention to some of the daily stresses in Ontarians’ lives,” citing electricity costs as an example.
But while the government moved to provide relief, effectively extending billions in costs far out in time like a morgtage, it came after Ontario’s own auditor general, in a scathing report, found Ontarians had paid $37 billion more than needed in electricity costs over nearly a decade, with an even larger hit to come – a result blamed on poor decisions, overpriced green energy and other factors.
Politically, the Liberals also took a hit from their move to sell off a majority stake in Hydro One, the provincial power distributor, to raise money for infrastructure projects.
The NDP has pledged to buy back Hydro One and eliminate the difference between what rural and urban consumers pay for power delivery. But, said Adams, “none of those things translate into big rate reductions across the board.”
Ontario is Canada’s largest wind energy market, able to generate 5,000 megawatts of power with 2,550 wind turbines, the Canadian Wind Energy Association, an industry umbrella group, says.
In Southwestern Ontario, the industry has run into many opponents including citizens’ groups turned off by the sight and noise of the projects and concerns about their fallout on human health.
Government promises made to unwilling host communities have amounted to “lip service,” said Bonnie Rowe, a spokesperson for Dutton Dunwich Opponents of Wind Turbines.
Noting NDP support for green energy, she said “I expect that would continue” if Andrea Horwath becomes premier, while Doug Ford “would potentially stop projects,” given where the PCs stand.
In Chatham-Kent, the group Water Wells First has fought for two years against a wind farm, claiming vibrations from its construction and operation have clogged more than 20 water wells with sediments.
Spokesperson Kevin Jakubec said a new government would be “a chance to reset, it’s a chance to start afresh and address the mistakes that were clearly made during the Liberal administration.”
He believes the NDP would make a difference, because it “has a well-established platform on water,” seeing it as “a public trust.” The PCs, on the other hand, were the party under whose watch Walkerton’s deadly tainted waster disaster occurred, he noted.
The wind energy association said it stands ready to work with whatever government Ontarians elect.
WHERE THE BIG THREE STAND
LIBERALS: Plan to keep Green Energy Act; cancelled plans for 1,000 megawatts of new green energy.
PCs: Have pledged to scrap Green Energy Act and halt new energy contracts while trying to renegotiate existing ones. The PCs say they’d also restore local decision-making powers to municipalities.
NDP: Says renewable energy would be at the heart of the system and be integrated responsibly as needs grow; says it will respect local decision-making and make sure communities have a stake in the benefits.
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