Public Being Shut Out

 by Stew Slater in St. Marys Journal Argus

The winds of dissent are blowing across southern Ontario, buffeting the dreams of entrepreneurs hoping to cash in on elevated support for renewable energy.

“There’s a lot of controversy about it coming out now,” said Simcoe County Federation of Agriculture president Dave Riddell in a recent edition of the Alliston Herald newspaper, when asked to comment about prospective wind energy projects.

Increasingly well-organized groups of residents around places like Ripley and St. Columban might suggest Riddell’s comment is an understatement. But, in the interview, he pinpointed the problem.

“The landowners who have been contacted (by companies hoping to build wind energy generators) think it’s great, and the people who haven’t been (contacted) and have to have houses and homes beside (the wind farm), they are not as enthused,” Riddell told the Herald.

Over the past few weeks, opposition has been building around St. Columban about a proposed wind energy project just north of the village. My off-the-record discussions with a couple of people opposed to the project reveal just what Riddell mentioned: a majority of neighbours upset with the lack of advance warning, and wondering if the few landowners who signed on with the proponent were sworn to secrecy when they signed their contracts.

In no way is it surprising that it has come to this.

On May 20, the Liberal government’s Green Energy Act easily passed its third reading. What began as a nod to the call from environmentalists to decrease the province’s dependence on nuclear power has since morphed – thanks to a public relations spin – into part of the effort to create jobs in recession-weary Ontario.

According to renewable energy, “while Ontario can boast that it has brought more than 1,000 megawatts of (energy from renewable sources) online since October, 2003, the Green Energy Act would dramatically increase that number through some important legislative vehicles.” These include a streamlined approval process for renewable energy projects, service guarantees, and a “right to connect” to the electricity grid for renewable projects.

Opposing votes in the Legislature came solely from the Conservatives. This was based on a belief that, if the ruling Liberals accomplish their stated goal of significantly boosting the proportion of our energy generated through small-scale, renewable sources (something environmentalists, on the other side of the ideological divide from the Conservatives, have repeatedly said the Liberals will fail to accomplish with this Act), the result will be significantly increased energy bills for taxpayers.

Canadian Business Magazine provided fodder for this argument, suggesting the Act, as written, will stifle the development of cheaper forms of renewable sources – if and when such sources are devised. “The government is setting prices guaranteed to a spectrum of renewable energy suppliers. By picking winners (among today’s renewable technologies), the Act distorts the playing field – and potentially hampers innovation.”

The biggest potential threat to the Act, however, hasn’t really been taken up as a serious plank in any opposition party’s platform.

At the time of the legislation’s introduction last winter, Premier Dalton McGuinty – now somewhat famously – offered up the opinion that the government plans to create a regulatory environment in which proponents of renewable energy projects will be able to receive approvals regardless of most local objections.

Importantly, the Act also leads the way by, for the first time, establishing standards for wind energy projects regarding setback from residences and other land uses.

But the lack of requirements for full public disclosure at all levels of the process is not sitting well.

The St. Columban opponents are aware of controversy which has raged for months near Ripley, where residents are concerned about the effects of living near many turbines.
Around Ripley, residents recruited a prominent London doctor to take their case about potential health effects to the government. The St. Columban opponents, drove north to the already-established Ripley site, and returned to a recent meeting with Huron East councillors to provide their input.

According to the Huron Expositor, the mother of one legally blind child “broke down in tears explaining how she drove (her child) out of the wind turbines in Ripley, where one mile from the nearest turbine he began grabbing his left ear and asking her to make the noise stop.”

At this point, a small number of turbines are proposed for the St. Columban project. But, as resident Jeanne Melady said in the meeting with Huron East councillors, “there has been little information provided to the public . . . Some of us didn’t know about it until last week. The majority of us have had no opportunity to become informed but it will affect everyone.”

Because of that, no one knows if, next year, there might be plans for a dozen more turbines on the same property.

If the government wants to push forward with its dreams in the wind energy sector, it will have to improve the flow of information.

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