“Yes to wind development, but not … at any price” Q & A with Nathalie Normandeau, Deputy Premier and Minister of Natural Resources And Wildlife
Marian Scott The Montreal Gazette
I can tell you, for our government, there is no question of imposing a project on a community that doesn’t want it. For us, the principle of social acceptability is a sacred principle. There is no question of ramming projects down people’s throats if they do not have wide acceptance in the community.
Question: This week and next, the Bureau des audiences publiques sur l’environnement is holding hearings on two proposed wind projects in central Quebec. Last week, it heard from citizens affected by a 78-turbine wind farm near Thetford Mines. On Wednesday, it will hold hearings in St. Ferdinand on a proposed 50-turbine wind farm. Residents are deeply divided and some have reported acts of vandalism and threats. How concerned are you over how these projects have torn apart communities?
Answer: I can tell you, for our government, there is no question of imposing a project on a community that doesn’t want it. What we seek is to have the widest consensus possible, and the developer of projects has the responsibility to negotiate with the community, to communicate with residents, and to make sure that the project is well understood. We are aware that some of those projects face opposition from local residents. For us, the principle of social acceptability is a sacred principle. There is no question of ramming projects down people’s throats if they do not have wide acceptance in the community.
We have taken care to ensure that there is a process of public consultations, so that citizens and groups, be they for or against, have a vehicle to express themselves, that they have a tribune to express their agreement or disagreement. After that, the government will look at the recommendations of the BAPE and make a decision as to whether to issue a certificate to authorize the project.
Q: Opponents fear that the wind farms will ruin the landscape in this picturesque region in central Quebec, with its historic villages and dramatic mountains. Why would the government choose to establish an industrial wind farm in a heritage landscape?
A: This is one of the biggest challenges, to reconcile the protection of landscapes and of the environment with economic development. In the Gaspé, we were successful in dealing with this challenge. In the Érable region and central Quebec, the challenge is greater because of the nature and density of the landscape. A developer who wants to establish a wind farm must consider not only its peacefulness but also this aspect.
People say, “Listen, we might agree with wind turbines but we don’t want wind turbines that are going to destroy our heritage landscapes.” Personally, I believe in the concept of protecting landscapes. I believe that wind development must be based on the principles of sustainable development. Yes to wind development, but not wind development at any price.
Q: Professor Jean-Claude Simard of the Université du Québec à Rimouski has studied wind developments and found that spin-offs for local communities are small unless they develop secondary industry. For example, a farmer who has a wind turbine on his land will receive a certain amount per year, but his neighbour gets nothing. Why should local residents get on board if there are no advantages for them?
A: I recognize that this is another challenge. The government has made suggestions with regard to a minimum for landowners but it has not enacted a mandatory scale. I recognize that sometimes this aspect can divide communities. Of course, communities could invent a new model to share revenues, where a wind farm is built mostly on private land. We want to leave flexibility and latitude to local communities, developers and landowners in negotiating payments.
There are also long-term and short-term spin-offs for local communities, since the creation of a wind farm does create economic activity. There is also the requirement for 30 per cent of Gaspesian content and 60 per cent of Quebec content.
Q: In his recent book on Quebec’s wind-energy potential, Réal Reid, argues that Hydro-Québec should develop the vast wind potential in northern Quebec. He says taxpayers are losing five cents a kilowatt-hour by turning the opportunity to develop wind energy over to private companies, mostly from abroad. In the 1960s, the Lesage government nationalized electricity. It was a great symbol for Quebecers. Why have we handed this source of electricity over to private companies?
A: There are two aspects to your question. First, there is no question of neglecting the potential of the north, because it is an area that we intend to harness. In Hydro-Québec’s strategic plan, there are plans to develop 300 megawatts of wind energy in the north. And there are other developments that will happen in northern Quebec. There are, however, certain challenges. For example, we lack expertise when it comes to connections with the network.
The other question that you raise relates to the business model that we would like to develop. When the government of Quebec first got involved with wind power, the business model that was chosen was one that calls on the private sector. The proposal to nationalize wind power has been put forward by Québec Solidaire. For us as a government, this is not a choice that we are making for the time being. For the future, we shall see.
Q: But if it was good for Quebec in past decades, why wouldn’t it be good now?
A: We’re not necessarily saying it isn’t good. We’re saying it’s a choice that has been made by the government, that we want to involve the private sector. It’s an emerging sector. There are risks associated with the wind network.
We believe that the private sector can make a significant contribution. We think that these companies, even though they come from outside, can, by virtue of being in the field, in manufacturing or assembly for example, offer benefits from which Quebec can benefit. I think that we have been somewhat in an apprenticeship phase for the past few years. Now we are achieving a cruising speed that gives us confidence in the future.
Q: Given the tensions within local communities over the two wind projects we have discussed, how do you envision them healing their divisions?
A: It’s sad when a dynamic like that comes into a community. It’s clear that when a project causes such a large division in a community, the best thing is not to authorize the project. For sure, afterward, local municipal leaders have to shoulder their responsibilities and make efforts to reunite the citizens. But there’s no doubt it can leave some scars.