Tom Blackwell
National Post
As soon as the Ontario government announced it was halting development of offshore wind farms — a high-profile part of its vaunted, nation-leading green-energy plan–critics wrote off the surprise decision as pure politics. It was, they said, an attempt merely to tamp down vocal wind opposition in a handful of Liberal-held ridings expected to be tight races in October’s provincial election.
If a former aide to Brad Duguid, the Liberal Energy Minister, is to be believed, however, the so-called moratorium mollified no one — and the party’s wind-generated political troubles are only just beginning.
John Laforet, now an ex-Liberal and the provincial head of a network of 57 anti-wind groups, says the organizations have already recruited hundreds of volunteers for a planned campaign to take down Liberal candidates across Ontario.
“It’s truly a multi-front war for the government and they’re losing on all of them,” said Mr. Laforet with characteristic bravado. “We have the strength to work in coalition with like-minded parties and candidates. … If one party is prepared to stand up and take the political risk and support this, they will be handsomely rewarded.”
Meanwhile, the green-energy plan, designed to phase out coal-fired generating plants encourage a range of renewable electricity sources from garbage-dump gas to water power, is also under fire from builders of small-scale solar-energy projects, after the province put curbs on those in the past couple of weeks, too.
       
Mr. Laforet’s movement may or may not wield the power to change election results. As the rest of the country watches Ontario’s ground-breaking experiment in alternative energy, however, the wind farm and solar episodes highlight the web of controversy slowly enveloping a policy that, in some ways, has been surprisingly successful.
Premier Dalton McGuinty said the moratorium on offshore wind turbines is to give time to delve into their environmental impacts; environmental groups say there are none. The government has offered handsome rates to lure producers of green energy into the market; some analysts call the payments exorbitant, for an electricity source that will not meet Ontarians’ energy needs.
“The power system has really been transformed by these changes,” said Tom Adams, a long-time energy-consumer advocate. “They’ve demoted the customer from at one time being the purpose of the power system. The customer has been bumped off the pedestal … and now the purpose is some sort of green and environmental transformation.”
Mr. Duguid dismisses such critics, though, and argues that Ontario’s aggressive courting of alternative energy has made it a global trailblazer in the field, with the province already generating 1,200 megawatts — about 4% of the total–from wind and other green sources. That is good for the province’s recession-battered economy, already creating thousands of jobs, as well as the environment, he said.
“Show me a previous government in this province or show me a jurisdiction anywhere else in the world that has taken more leadership in moving forward with … building a clean-energy economy,” the Minister said.
Behind it all is 2009’s Green Energy Act and the legislation’s lynch-pin program of “feed-in tariffs” (FIT): jargon for guaranteed rates paid by the province — under 20-year contracts — to producers who use alternative energy to feed the electricity grid. The market rate for power in Ontario is currently about 7¢; FIT offers 13.5¢ for onshore wind, 19¢ (until two weeks ago) for offshore wind, up to 80¢ for solar power and as much as 19¢ for bio-gas.
Hundreds of investors have taken the bait, including such heavy hitters as Samsung; about a dozen onshore wind farms are already in place.
At the same time, though, numerous groups have sprung up to oppose turbines, complaining they are responsible for lost sleep, headaches and dizziness. They warn that the installation of offshore windmills — which must be at least five kilo-metres from land — could churn up harmful pollutants from lake beds, and that their operation threatens birds and bats.
Mr. Laforet, who worked for the energy minister for several months in the mid-2000s, said wind power should be put on hold until more study of its effects on people living nearby is conducted. A review of the medical literature by Ontario’s chief medical officer of health concluded last year, however, that while some people are annoyed by the low-frequency noise, there is no evidence of a link to health problems.
As head of Environmental Defence Canada, Rick Smith is in the unusual position of defending a sort of industrial development against ecological complaints, but he also said the environmental and health concerns around wind farms, after decades of use in Europe, have been proven generally unfounded.
“Some folks have worked up a fixation with windmills that is irrational,” he said. “We have taken a close look. It is such thin gruel that I have to think these folks are motivated by something else — which is just a basic dislike of how they look.”
When the Ontario government removed an earlier moratorium on offshore wind power in 2008, it declared that it had spent a year doing research on various “social and ecological” aspects of the concept and was ready to move ahead.
So what’s the Liberals’ concern now? John Yakabusky, the Conservative energy critic, rhymes off several ridings where proposed offshore wind energy has been particularly controversial and, he says, Liberal ridings are under threat.
“They’re saying ‘How the hell do we save those ridings,’ ” said Mr. Yakabusky. “A position they said was an absolutely iron-clad part of their energy plan a month ago is now relegated to the dust bin.”
He is a little less emphatic in laying out the Conservatives’ own plan for energy, beyond vowing to end coal generation by 2015 and freezing all wind development until more study is done. The party’s plan will be detailed before the election, though, Mr. Yakabusky said.
For Mr. Adams, the real issues around wind power are not environmental, but economic. The province is offering guaranteed rates rather than taking competitive bids, while wind itself is an inherently intermittent source of electricity, meaning it cannot fill the soon-to-be-closed coal plants’ role as a reliable backup when extra power is needed, he said.
Green-energy investors are also up in arms, including those affected by the government’s decision to not approve any more FIT contracts for small-scale solar unless local utilities have committed first to hook them up to the grid. One group told the London Free Press their $175,000 investment in solar panels–and a second mortgage–were now at risk.
Meanwhile, the industry behind offshore wind is still reeling from the unexpected announcement, said John Kourtoff, president of its top company, Trillium Power Wind Corp. Officials quietly referred them to a more detailed notice that said current applications were “cancelled” and that investors would be stripped of the offshore rights the province had tentatively granted them earlier.
As well as threatening the $10-million that Trillium has already invested, the decision is likely to persuade turbine manufacturers to shift promised factories from Ontario to the States, and rob Canada of its one opportunity, with offshore wind, to be at the technological forefront of alternative energy, said Mr. Kourtoff.
“This, today, is the 21st-century version of the Avro Arrow,” he said in reference to the innovative, Canadiandeveloped fighter jet cancelled in the 1950s. “We’re the leader in offshore wind in North America, and we’re giving the biggest gift to the U.S.”