It was a one-two punch meant to help Ontarians breathe easier and power up cleaner.
Shut down the province’s dirty coal-fired power plants, load up on green energy.
It worked. Air quality warnings fell, and wind and solar energy farms sprouted, as Ontario plunged headlong into green energy a decade ago.
But the same move also hit many in the gut, especially in Southwestern Ontario, which quickly became home to some of the largest green energy projects in the province.
Fights erupted over unwanted wind farms and their highrise-sized turbine towers. Infamously, police were even called in when an anti-turbine activist tried to record one rural council meeting.
After their control over where green energy project could be built was snatched away by the province, many municipalities revolted, declaring themselves “unwilling hosts” for the Liberal government’s plans.
And then came the financial hit – billions of dollars in extra costs for consumers, the fallout of lucrative deals that paid energy producers far more for electricity than consumers pay.
But on a Friday night one year ago, in one of its first big moves in office, Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservatives cancelled 758 new green energy contracts across the province, almost one in three of them in Southwestern Ontario.
The backlash against green energy subsided, but in Southwestern Ontario, where green energy angered many before, others are now seeing a different shade of red – adding up the fallout from the zapped contracts. Hundreds of millions in lost investment, unknown job losses, future opportunities gone.
And then there are the wounds, still there in communities divided over green energy.
Nowhere was the fight over the energy projects more pronounced than in Dutton Dunwich, a rural community southwest of London, that had a wind farm imposed on it by the province despite voting overwhelmingly against such projects in a referendum.
The cancelled deals included one with Chicago-based Invenergy, which planned up to 20 wind turbines in its Strong Breeze project that would have produced enough power for 18,000 homes.
“It was very hard on the community and we didn’t even end up with wind turbines,” said Bonnie Rowe of Dutton Dunwich Opponents of Wind Turbines, a citizens’ group that fought the project.
A year later, the community of 4,000 is still trying to heal, said Mayor Bob Purcell.
“We ended up with, as you always do, with two of the more strongly vocal groups: one in favour of and one against under all circumstances,” he said. “That ended up with some fathers and sons, and some fathers and daughters, on different sides of the issues.”
It was a “no-win” for the community, said Purcell.
“My wife and I have lived here for over 45 years now, and I’ve never seen anything like that in our community,” he said. “That was the sad part.”
Adding insult to injury for many, Invenergy landed the deal in part through a provincial bidding system that gave projects with First Nations involvement an edge. Invenergy’s Indigenous partners were six small communities located more than 1,000 kilometres away, far from the local controversy.
Invenergy had no comment on the scuttled $180-million Strong Breeze project.
Overshadowed by news about energy giants, many of the cancelled contracts were with small companies and organizations, including hospitals and schools, producing power from rooftops and even along old rail lines. Dennis German is a face of that part of the industry.
His London company, German Solar Corp., had 22 projects in Southwestern Ontario – 11 in Southwest Middlesex, 10 in Southwold and one in Central Elgin – pulled out from under it.
The hit to his company was worth about 150 jobs, said German, who had been awaiting the final go-ahead when the projects were nixed.
“You’re talking millions of dollars,” he said.
Each solar project was to have generated 500 kilowatts of power and take up less than 1.2 hectares of land. Each parcel was roughly half a kilomere to two km long, most along rail corridors.
German, president of the company, said he has enough other business to survive. “Fortunately for us, we’re able to stay alive, not go bankrupt,” he said.
Others aren’t so fortunate, he said, estimating only one in five companies hit by the contract cancellations will survive.
“It confounds me that this government has made this decision . . . ,” German said, adding electricity costs will only grow from traditional suppliers such as nuclear power.
And then there’s the cost to the province of killing the contracts. “They haven’t paid any money out on the contracts yet, that’s yet to come, and who knows what that number is going to be?” German said.
Along the highways in Chatham-Kent, the night sky twinkles with the blinking red lights of giant wind turbines – and no wonder. With about 500 such towers within its far-flung borders, the municipality is home to roughly one in five of Ontario’s turbines.
Montreal-based Boralex and RES Canada planned to add to that number, with the 50-megawatt Otter Creek Wind Farm worth $150 million. But that project near Wallaceburg, slightly smaller in output than the scuttled Strong Breeze project, was also unplugged by the Ford government.
On its own, the wider economic fallout of the Otter Creek cancellation isn’t huge, one economic development official said.
But the numbers, multiplied out over many projects, paint a picture of how much economic activity the industry generates beyond the power it produces.
“It was 12 turbines they were looking at there. You look at about $6,000 apiece in taxes and whatever the revenue to the landowners, but I would suggest no (major) fallout,” said Stuart McFadden, Chatham-Kent’s economic development director.
While building wind farms employs construction workers, McFadden estimates all the turbines in Chatham-Kent together employ only about 100 full-time workers in maintenance and monitoring.
Even still, the turbines add about $3 million a year to the municipality’s bottom line, he said.
“That revenue is absolutely necessary for us to continue to operate this municipality and has a big impact on our budget,” he said.
Boralex, in a statement, said it’s still reviewing its options for Otter Creek, the project website for which remains active.
How many jobs were lost provincewide by the scuttled contracts is unclear, but an umbrella group for the wind energy industry estimates the losses as high as 1,000 on that side of the business, factoring in peak construction levels and employment in the years that follow.
“That was a very unfortunate loss for ratepayers,” said Brandy Giannetta, Ontario regional director for the Canadian Wind Energy Association (CanWEA).
“But right now, because we’re not in a development phase, those projects are sort of on hold. They’re viable projects. There are good economic benefits associated with those projects.”
While some in the green power industry remain hopeful the scuttled projects might yet be revived, the Tories have said Ontario had spent enough money subsidizing green energy and that the cancellations would save ratepayers nearly $800 million and help to reduce power bills.
Green energy accounts for a fraction of the province’s power output, still dominated by nuclear-generated electricity including from Bruce Power near Kincardine. As the world’s largest operating nuclear plant, it alone accounts for 30 per cent of Ontario’s electricity.
Even before the cancellations, there were signs of trouble in Southwestern Ontario as the then-Liberal provincial government scaled back on green power and tightened contracts.
Four manufacturing plants had been set up in southern Ontario, including three in the southwest, to make parts for green energy producers, under a controversial multi-billion deal between the former Liberal government and Korean industrial giant Samsung.
Together, the plants were expected to employ hundreds, the start of a new industry supplying the green energy industry in Ontario and beyond. Then demand dried up.
A Tillsonburg wind tower blade plant closed in 2017, costing 340 jobs. Another in Toronto making solar equipment closed in 2016 and a Windsor plant that made wind tower stems closed earlier this year, leaving 300 people out of work.
A fourth company that is behind a solar components plant in London did not return calls.
At Queen’s Park, the opposition energy critic insists there’s still a bright future in green energy. Killing the contracts only “undermined Ontario’s credibility internationally as a place for business,” even as green energy costs fall, said New Democrat MPP Peter Tabuns.
If it were in charge, the NDP would invest in renewable energy but shift the focus away from the private sector to the public sector, he said.
One energy analyst says it’s tough to predict what will eventually become of the cancelled projects, noting it depends on things such as industry competitiveness and investor interest.
Still, Binnu Jeyakumar said she believes the outlook for the wind industry is good, no matter the short-term politics.
“The economics of renewables are looking really strong,” said Jeyakumar of the Pembina Institute, a clean energy think tank.
|Wind Watch relies entirely
on User Funding