By Paul Schliesmann The Whig-Standard
Depending on whom you talk to, the proposed Amherst Island wind turbine project is either going to be an economic boon for the community or an environmental disaster.
Both opinions are already well entrenched within two community groups — the pro-turbine Citizens of Amherst Island for Renewable Energy CAIRE and the anti-turbine Association for the Protection of Amherst Island APAI.
“They’re all fine people, every one of them,” said CAIRE chairman Eric Welbanks of his opponents. “But we’re not interested in any kind of debate.”
Asked if any animosity exists between islanders because of the turbine proposal, Welbanks replied: “Not on our part.”
APAI chairwoman Janet Grace would like to share Welbanks’ opinion, but it’s getting more and more difficult as the project jumps through the bureaucratic hoops.
“Eric’s a friend of mine,” she said. “He’s always saying when the wind turbines come we’re still going to be friends. I’m having a hard time with that.”
On Feb. 24, Windlectric, a company formed between Algonquin Power Co. of Oakville and Gaia Power of Kingston, announced that it had been offered a contract to build a 75-megawatt turbine project on Amherst Island.
A spokesman for Algonquin confirmed yesterday that the contract was signed within the required 10-day period.
Jeff Norman said the company now has a year to complete the environmental and permit process and will host a series of public meetings as the project unfolds.
The wind farm must be in operation by February 2014.
“We obviously want to have open dialogue with the community. I’m aware of the opposition,” said Norman.
Exactly how strong support or opposition is to the project is difficult to determine.
The island has a full-time population of about 450, which more than doubles in the summer.
Both organizations are claiming more than 100 active members.
That leaves what Grace calls “a secret element on the island not in favour of the turbines and won’t come out to a meeting.”
Whatever the numbers, the anti-turbine people believe there is inequity in the information being provided to each side.
Grace points to a dinner meeting near Kingston held on March 31 attended by pro-turbine people and Algonquin officials.
“It was all very hush-hush,” said Grace. “There must be some sort of gag order. I find that very distasteful.”
However, Norman confirmed Friday that Algonquin did host the dinner — not with CAIRE, but with the landowners involved with the project.
“Just to build a business relationship,” he said.
Norman said he didn’t want to disclose how many landowners have signed agreements.
“We have sufficient land to build the project,” he said.
Welbanks did not want to disclose the nature of his own involvement with Algonquin.
“I wouldn’t comment on that at all,” he said. “That’s nobody’s business. I do not discuss private contracts.”
Welbanks said the main role of CAIRE is “to promote renewable energy. We’re advocates for the project now that Algonquin is determined to be the owners.”
Grace, a Kingston-based real estate agent, said there will be negative economic effects on real estate values if the project is built.
She said she’s had prospective clients “back off” from buying property on Amherst Island once they hear about the turbines.
“I can tell you, if you’re too close to these things your value will drop up to 30%. Some say up to 40%,” she said. “What we all have to be very cautious of is what these wind turbine projects do to the value of the lands around them.”
Grace points to the 86-turbine project on Wolfe Island as a negative example of what can happen.
“I look across at what that is and all I can think of is a graveyard,” she said.
But Welbanks said there is economic opportunity in wind power.
“Like any industry, people are looking for economic growth. It promotes prosperity within the community and there are considerable tax dollars,” he said.
On Wolfe Island, the wind project operated by TransAlta pays about $7,000 a year per turbine to landowners who host the big machines.
The increase in industrial assessment has also reduced taxes by about $200 a year on the average home and Frontenac Islands Township receives about $600,000 a year from TransAlta to spend as the community pleases.
John Harrison, a retired physics professor from Queen’s University, has been a critic of the Wolfe Island project and all wind farms.
Harrison lives on Amherst Island and says there are a number of reasons why the project shouldn’t go ahead, first and foremost being the effect on migratory birds.
“Amherst Island is an important bird area. It’s just an area where wind turbines should not be placed,” he said.
The island is also home to an area called Owl Woods, owned by the Cataraqui Region Conservation Authority.
Last month, the board of directors of the CRCA advised its manager to send a letter to Algonquin Power expressing concern that “the development of the wind turbine project might compromise the existing conservation initiatives on Amherst Island.”
Harrison also questions the company’s estimate that it can produce 247 gigawatt hours of electricity annually.
That would require about 30 turbines functioning at 38% efficiency.
“The Ontario average for last year was 28%. Wolfe Island was 24%. The high was 34% just north of Lake Erie,” said Harrison.
Grace said she understands that many of the pro-turbine people want to reap the income from the wind farm by renting out their property.
But she also noted that many “wealthy” people are doing the same.
“I think they will have regrets, They’re being told by the wind turbine people that they shouldn’t listen to the arguments,” said Grace.
Welbanks said his group has taken all the relevant environmental information into account.
“I have no concerns whatsoever about the project,” he concluded.
“We’ve considered all aspects of every environmental issue and we have no concerns whatsoever. It’s not on the radar screen. We’ve considered the issue and put it to rest.”
Grace said that once Algonquin was offered the contract “the gloves were off.”
Anti-turbine signs are now popping up all over the island.
“I really feel this is long-lasting. We won’t be able to mend these fences,” she said. “The signs are for Algonquin. They won’t walk in without a fight.”