By Mitchell Beer
When the Green Energy Act (GEA) passed the Ontario legislature in 2009, it was hailed as one of North America’s leading efforts to build incentives and momentum toward a sustainable energy future.
The legislation has since drawn billions of dollars of investment, created thousands of green energy jobs and attracted more than 40 new or announced renewable energy manufacturing facilities to the province, according to an analysis by the David Suzuki Foundation. Four of those plants will be built by Samsung, the South Korean electronics giant, which committed to a controversial, C$7 billion investment deal under the GEA.
But when Ontario voters went to the polls October 5, the Liberal government responsible for the Act lost its legislative majority. Many of the 19 seats the government relinquished were in rural constituencies, and the morning-after analysis pointed to voter anger over wind farm development as the deciding issue.
No Good Deed Goes Unpunished
If that analysis was right, there’s something new in this election result, something more than no good deed going unpunished.
The last time Ontario saw major energy-related protests, in the 1970s and early 1980s, the flashpoint was the Darlington nuclear station. Opposition was widespread, but it was also spread very thin. The plant was built and the government of the day paid no political price, with participants in a province-wide safe energy network distributed across many different electoral districts.
A generation later, opposition to the Green Energy Act centers in rural communities with focused concerns about wind farms, with local organizers sharing their rage, strategies and (not always accurate) information online. The response overwhelmed solid efforts by wind energy producers to connect with host communities, counter the myths that have sprung up around wind generation and integrate local concerns in their development plans.
A guide by the Canadian Wind Energy Association (CanWEA) describes community participation and public consultation as a “cornerstone for a successful wind energy development. Continuous, proactive community engagement is a vital investment for long-term success of your project.” The association reminds members that residents of every community have a right to ask questions, be skeptical and concerned, and oppose developers’ plans.
'Naysayers and Nonsense'
Although there’s no evidence of similar activity in Ontario, a November 8th news report from the U.S. may point to the depth of opposition Canadian wind developers can expect. Greentech Media noted that the coal industry’s share of U.S. electricity production fell from 48 to 44 percent over the last five years, while wind grew to 35 percent of new generation. Not coincidentally, “misinformation about wind is proliferating, propagated by a small army of well-paid think-tank and university pontificators and a media that thrives on naysayers and nonsense.”
But in Ontario, vote and legislative seat counts may have delivered a decisive message. Less than a month after the election, when Energy Minister Chris Bentley announced a scheduled review of the feed-in tariffs (FIT) that are the centrepiece of the Act, there were concerns the election result would translate into a damaging reduction in rates. The tariffs, modelled on a wildly successful program in Germany, give renewable energy producers the long-term stability they need to finance their projects.
How Drastic a Cut?
“Over the long run, producers anticipated a change in payments. That was the message from the government at the time,” Peter White, chief executive of the London (Ontario) Economic Development Corporation, told the London Free Press. “But it's about how great a change is made, how drastic a cut might be.”
CanWEA Media Relations Officer Ulrike Kucera said the association expects to play a “meaningful role” in the feed-in tariff review, and hopes to see Ontario introduce a FIT rate for smaller turbines. According to a poll CanWEA commissioned over the summer, 90 percent of Ontarians support wind generation, and “the level of support remains high” when respondents were asked about projects in their own communities.
“We hear from farmers, landowners and citizens every week who have a positive story to share,” but “we do not take that support for granted,” she said. “CanWEA has worked hard to de-politicize wind energy because, regardless of politics, wind energy is the right thing to do and makes economic sense.”
About Mitchell Beer
Mitchell Beer, CMM, is president of The Conference Publishers Inc. in Ottawa, Canada, one of the world’s leading specialists in capturing and repackaging conference content. He tweets as @mitchellbeer.
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