By Paul Schliesmann The Whig Standard
Canadian Hydro Developers and hundreds of invited guests celebrated the official opening of the company’s 86-turbine wind farm on Wolfe Island yesterday.
The emphasis was on “invited.”
A long line of cars was backed up along the highway leading to the company headquarters as Ontario Provincial Police officers meticulously checked names off a list.
Anyone not appearing on the list was asked to pull over and could be be turned away.
A few metres away from the OPP checkpoint, three protesters stood quietly beside a van with signs taped to the windows reading: “This is our island too” and “Where’s our invitation?”
Inside the company property, politicians, company officials, contractors who worked on the massive $475-million project and other guests listened to speeches under two massive white tents. Among the guests was former Alberta premier Ralph Klein, who sits on the Canadian Hydro board of directors.
Frontenac Islands mayor Jim Vanden Hoek called the wind farm “the best thing this community has seen in a long, long time.”
“It is significant.”
Under its agreement with Canadian Hydro, township revenues will be boosted by $645,000 a year, according to a company official.
“From an island perspective, where do you find a half billion dollars worth of investment coming to your community in eastern Ontario?” Vanden Hoek said in an interview with the Whig-Standard.
“It’s a pretty exciting day. It’s a day we’ve been waiting for for 10 years.”
Vanden Hoek said the construction work brought millions of dollars worth of business to the island hospitality industry and has resulted in about 10 full-time, permanent jobs at the wind farm.
Landowners who agreed to have the massive turbines built on their property receive annual rental fees.
The mayor could not explain the police presence or why a public road was closed to traffic for much of the day.
“You’ll have to talk to [township] staff about that,” he said.
One of the roadside protesters was Gail Kenney of the group Wolfe Island Residents for the Environment who, as of Wednesday, hadn’t heard the official opening ceremonies were taking place.
“I felt that WIRE would be afforded the opportunity to attend because we have been involved for the past three or four years,” she said.
Kenney admitted relations between her group and Canadian Hydro developers has at times been strained. “We have been beneficial. We felt we would be invited in the spirit of transparency,” she said.
Noise and the possible health-related effects from the turbines continue to be issue for the group after three years of seeking information from the company and the provincial government.
Kenney said she would have relished the opportunity to speak to energy and infrastructure minister George Smitherman and Environment Minister John Gerretsen, both of whom attended the celebration, to ask them some longstanding questions.
“People are wondering what the impact is. We need time to find out if their bodies and lifestyle are being impacted,” she said. “The impacts will only be obvious with time. We’re talking about health issues. We’re talking about quality of life. About impact on your lifestyle.”
At the gathering, Gerretsen said his government will introduce legislation to help people living near turbines with their complaints and concerns.
“There will be an appeal mechanism to prove serious health issues are involved. It’s coming,” said Gerretsen, the MPP for Kingston and the Islands.
Gerretsen likened wind turbines to the introduction of hydroelectric power and transmission lines a century ago.
“People probably said that’s awful. The reality is everybody went home and turned on the lights. This is far preferable,” he said.
“The notion that we are using wind power, that we are gathering the power of the wind into electricity and this will power the equivalent of 75,000 homes. Here is the natural powers that we’re utilizing to power homes and businesses and we all benefit.”
Infrastructure minister Smitherman said the provincial government is moving ahead with its plan to eliminate coal-burning power plants in less than four years from now. Projects like the one on Wolfe Island, he said, will play a role in electricity generation.
“It’s already demonstrated it’s picking up the slack and all that slack is from fossil fuel generation,” he said. “Wind is not the whole answer. It’s probably one of the answers.”
Township deputy mayor Matt Fiene said bringing the wind farm to completion has been “difficult” because of the divide it created among the small island population.
“There are different opinions in the community and the scope of the project has a huge impact, visually and all the impact during construction,” he said.
“Personally, I am for wind energy. The scale is a little bit intimidating. Some people will probably move out. That’s unfortunate.”
A neighbour of Canadian Hydro, Mildred Walton, was delighted to be at the opening ceremonies. She is co-owner of Alston Moor Golf Links and the big windmill near one of the tees is named “Milly” in her honour.
“I have researched it thoroughly,” Walton said. “I spent three weeks in Europe and they think it’s the best thing that’s ever happened. They are all in favour of windmills and some of them were almost in their backyards.”
Vanden Hoek said that despite the few protesters present yesterday, the will of the majority has been respected.
“Everyone has had an opportunity to present their views. This project has gone through three elections. I think the vast number of Wolfe Islanders are celebrating,” he said.