By Paul Schliessman The Whig-Standard
The politics of wind power are taking their toll on Amherst Island.
Islanders are deeply divided over the 75-megawatt project proposed for their community and Loyalist Township councillors and staff are feeling powerless in the face of provincial laws and regulations governing the project.
Now it appears the municipality will reap far lower revenues than most people expected — just $40,000 a year.
That figure is based on an estimated $3-million assessment on the power output, according to the township’s director of planning and development services, Murray Beckel.
By contrast, the 200-megawatt project on Wolfe Island is assessed at about $7.5 million — and the township also receives an annual additional payment of $600,000.
Beckel said there’s a growing sense among rural Ontario municipalities that urban centres are reaping the benefits of clean energy while rural folk are left to deal with the fallout.
“We have to change the way we’re getting energy, but the rural landbase is paying the cost, not the urban areas,” Beckel said.
There are other hidden costs.
Right now, Loyalist Township has two wind and four solar project proposals on the go. Beckel spends about a day and a half a week working on the six alternative energy project files — and none of his expenses are reimbursed.
“We have a lot of time involvement in it, but we don’t have a lot of say. We’re bearing a lot of the cost now,” he said. “It’s big for any municipality, but we have a high caseload.”
In 2003, the township realized it would be a preferred site for potential solar and wind energy projects. Shortly afterward, two companies began vying to sign Amherst Islanders to deals that would allow them to place dozens of the huge towers on their land.
Beckel said that by 2006 the township started “trying to figure things out because the province wasn’t providing any leadership whatsoever.”
Under most municipal land-use designation rules, wind turbines weren’t even allowed.
Through 2008 and 2009, Loyalist Township councillors and staff toiled over a green technology policy, eventually incorporating it into the official plan.
Councillor Duncan Ashley found the process daunting.
“I just won a popularity contest and I was asked to decide what a (turbine) setback should be,” recalled Ashley.
“It was troubling when we were being asked to set a setback and were flooded with science on both sides of what a setback should be. There was lots of acrimonious dialogue and the township was caught in the middle.”
Loyalist managed to incorporate a number of controls into its official plan. Rules governing turbine setback distances, noise, heritage and visual impacts and effects on wildlife were all in the package.
On May 14, 2009, all of that changed with the Liberal government’s Green Energy Act.
The Ontario Power Authority was put in charge of awarding contracts to developers based on a limited set of criteria — mainly financing, the presence of sufficient wind to run the turbines and the company’s success with previous projects.
The biggest thing lacking, Beckel said, is transparency.
“This process is proponent-driven and the studies aren’t made available until the end of the project. There’s going to be fear. Things are being done behind closed doors. With our process it was all transparent.”
Transparency is very much an issue right now on Amherst Island where two citizens’ groups have formed, for and against the wind project.
Just ask Kevin Archibald.
About seven years ago, when Archibald and his wife bought their 40-hectare property on the island, they were contacted almost immediately by Windlectric, the partnership company formed between Algonquin Power Co. and Gaia Power, to place turbines there.
Archibald, who was opposed to the idea, jumped into action.
He bought 100 shares of Algonquin stock, at $7.50 apiece. He started attending stockholders meetings and asking questions, but provincial regulations don’t require the company in the early stages of a project to reveal where the turbines, as many as 30 of them, might be located.
That has neighbours looking suspiciously at neighbours.
“Everybody has to guess,” said Archibald. “Nobody wants to say who signed. It’s not about saving the planet. It’s about the money.”
The former Toronto trade union activist then took another radical step: he ran against Ashley for the Amherst Island council seat in last fall’s municipal election.
Archibald says the turbines weren’t at the top of his election platform, but everyone knew where he stood on the issue.
Most of all, he believed Duncan Ashley was conflicted.
“He has relatives who have signed for turbines,” he said. “We’ve only got one councillor from here. There’s no stand on anything, really.”
Ashley, who won the race, says that with so much provincial control over wind projects, the best municipal councils can hope to do is ensure that roads and the ferry service are not damaged in the construction process.
Though he acknowledges the issue is a “community splitter,” he won’t state publicly whether he’s for or against the project.
“What I would personally like is not why I’m in office,” Ashley told the Whig-Standard.
“Neither of (the groups) speaks for everybody on either side of this issue. There are people on the con side that are not in it together. And there are pro-people who aren’t leaseholders.
“Some people feel they don’t have to have an opinion. Some people like to have friends. It’s a tough one for the community, but development always is.”
He said it’s the responsibility of council to keep an open-door policy and hear complaints and concerns from all sides.
Archibald doesn’t agree.
“A local politician has got to represent his constituents, and I think the majority of constituents don’t want the turbines coming here,” he said.
Archibald also predicts there could be tension between island and mainland dwellers over how the revenues may be divided.
“There’s no guarantee what share we’re going to get on Amherst Island,” said Archibald. “The money could go into general revenues and stay on the mainland.”