author: DENNY MANCHEE / photographs: TOM GROOT
Secret deals, accelerated timelines and lack of public process pit neighbour against neighbour over industrial wind turbines.
It starts with an unfamiliar car in the driveway. Two people get out and approach your farmhouse. They knock, you open. “We’re interested in doing a study on the feasibility of wind turbines here,” says the taller one. “There’s no commitment,” adds the other, following a well-rehearsed script. Just like the travelling salesmen of yore, the Fuller Brush man or the FilterQueen vacuum guy, these folks have something to sell, a proposal – you can do your bit for the planet and make a little green while you’re at it. What’s not to like?
You invite them in to hear more, offer them coffee while you sit around your kitchen table, listen with interest as they lay out the numbers: $12,000 per year minimum per turbine and maybe as much as $18,000. You picture five slender poles with blades glinting in the sunlight and do the mental arithmetic: 60 to 90 grand a year for letting them use your land? Sure beats sitting on a tractor for 12 hours a day.
Problem is, they’re not slender poles, they’re industrial behemoths, five metres wide at the base, 100 metres tall to the hub with blades half again as high – 150 metres from toe to tip, as tall as a 40-storey building. In skimming the fine print, you also missed the part about the potential health and environmental impacts of turbines, and breezed past the language about not talking to anyone about the deal.
But you don’t realize this till later, after you’ve signed the lease, and by then your neighbours have stopped speaking to you and have formed a group to stop the wind project with whatever it takes, including filing a lawsuit, contacting reporters and meeting with local councillors and MPPs.
The Green Energy and Economy Act plays havoc with rural lives
This is the scenario that has played out across rural Ontario since the Green Energy and Economy Act (GEA) came into force in 2009: Neighbours fighting neighbours over private energy developments that dramatically and irrevocably alter the landscape while funneling money into the pockets of a few. In Northumberland and Prince Edward County there are three wind “parks” making headlines right now – Clean Breeze Grafton, Clean Breeze Centreton and Ostrander Point – 19 turbines in all. The Ostrander Point project by Gilead Power was approved by the Ministry of Environment on December 20, 2012 and residents were given 15 days over the Christmas holidays to appeal, which they’ve done. The Grafton and Centreton projects by Zero Emission People (ZEP) – owned by Wind Works Power – are at the draft site plan stage and the community has mobilized and launched a major fight.
It’s important to realize that many of these wind warriors are environmentalists who fervently believe in developing renewable energy resources. This is not an argument about ‘the what’ of wind energy, it’s about ‘the how’ – about a deeply flawed process. How is it ethical for one landowner to profit at the expense of others – without public discussion? What has enraged people is this lack of democratic process in siting and constructing these projects.
The root of the problem goes back to the Green Energy Act, which removed municipal authority and planning procedure for renewable energy and dangled a bag of gold in front of developers through its Feed-In-Tariff program (FIT). This program created ideal conditions for opportunistic “green” energy developers to self-seed across the land.
What ideas informed the legislation? In May 2007, George Smitherman was appointed Minister of Energy and, soon after, attended a wind energy conference in Kingston. Inspired by what he heard, he embarked on a tour of renewable projects in Europe and California and returned determined to set Ontario on a new course.
Rick Smith, the former Executive Director of Environmental Defence, was on the scene at the time and became one of the leaders of the Green Energy Act Alliance. This was a coalition of trade associations, environmental and community groups, First Nations, farmers and landowners that advised the Ministry of Energy on the new legislation. “If you take climate change seriously, you have to take the rapid acceleration of renewable energy seriously,” Smith said in a recent phone interview. “The start and end of Environmental Defence’s position is profound concern about climate change. FIT decisively emerged as the model for rapid deployment of renewable energy because it’s flexible and highly adaptable.”
Energy at what cost?
The Feed-In-Tariff program offers guaranteed prices for electricity produced from solar, wind, water and biogas, and usually involves long-term contracts. Germany, Spain and Denmark were leaders in this, spurred by rising oil prices and determined to be less reliant on imports from the Persian Gulf. The European FITs seemed to be working well in the first decade of the new century, and Ontario bought in, propelled by “Furious George’s” legendary energy. The government offered 20-year contracts with attractive prices: from 44.3-71.3 cents/KWh for solar, 13.5 cents/KWh for wind (it’s since come down to 11.5 cents), 10.4-19.5 cents/ KWh for biogas and 12.2-13.1 cents/KWh for water. If you think about what Hydro One charges consumers for electricity – currently 6.3-11.8 cents/ KWh – you realize what a sweet deal the tariff program was offering.
But what somehow got lost in the kilowatt hours and glossy investment prospectus was the voice of the people whose lives it would change. Sure, the Green Energy Act spelled out requirements for public consultation:
A person who proposes to engage in a renewable energy project shall hold at least two public meetings, each on a separate day, in accordance with this section, in each local municipality in which the project location is situated...
The interpretation of public consultation, though, was left in the hands of developers and has been conducted without a meaningful process in county after county across the province.
January 9, 2013, first public meeting for Clean Breeze Grafton Wind Park. Alnwick/Haldimand Civic Centre, Roseneath, Ontario.
The scene: Security guards crowd the entrance to a room lined with easels and display boards. On the door a notice says the event is being filmed by the wind company, but attendees are not allowed to bring in any PA systems or recording devices. Two fresh-faced representatives from ZEP sit at a desk and ask people to sign in, while handing them an evaluation form. The room soon fills up with 100-plus farmers and landowners, milling about looking at maps and draft reports while trying to comprehend this mockery of a public meeting that involves no presentation, no formal question-and-answer period and virtually no place to sit. Ironically, one of the hand-outs is a slick, four-colour fact sheet on health from the Canadian Wind Energy Association that says, “Responsible siting of projects and meaningful community engagement will address any sound impacts for neighbouring homes and communities.”
Draft site plans for both projects are on view, showing exactly where the turbines will go. The air crackles with complaint. “What a crock!” says Mark DeJong, a third-generation Northumberland farmer whose lovingly restored 1875 house is right beside the proposed Centreton wind park. “How can they release the draft site plan for Grafton before the first meeting?!” asks one frustrated woman. “This is a sham, this is outrageous!” says another. People shed their coats, as the temperature and tempers rise, and cluster together in disbelief. Lisa DeJong, Mark’s wife, circulates efficiently – fiercely, even – with a pad, getting names and numbers of people who are galvanized to take action. “We might have to sell,” she says, straining to keep it together. “I don’t know if I can live there if these things go up.”
Another gust of air for the wildfire of anger and outrage burning across rural Ontario, as farmers and neighbours revolt against a process that denies them input into industrial wind turbine developments that have changed or will change the look, feel, sound, health and peace of the land they love.
A matter of social justice
In the July 2011 Bulletin of Science and Technology, researcher Carmen Krogh published an article called “Industrial Wind Turbine Development and Loss of Social Justice.” Krogh initially cites six criteria for a just and fair decision-making process: consistency, bias suppression, accuracy, correctability, representativeness and ethicality.
She concludes, “In Ontario, Canada, there is a suspension of critical appraisal and due process regarding industrial wind turbines. The lack of confidence in the political and regulatory systems will persist if governments and industry continue to deny the existence of adverse impacts from human exposure to industrial wind turbines…The negative psychological effect of disempowerment interacting with the adverse health effects attributed to industrial wind turbines has intensified the negative synergy of justice lost. Impact statements indicate that the violation of procedural justice will not be easily forgotten.”
Taking it to court
Justice lost, that’s what people are feeling, and it’s all too familiar to Gord Gibbins, who’s been battling wind developers in Prince Edward County since 2000, a year after he and his wife bought a place there and long before the Green Energy Act was passed. “It started here with a company called Vision Quest, a division of TransAlta Corp. that proposed to build a number of turbines in Hillier,” he says. “It was a municipal decision then and it was an 8-8 tie, but the project was defeated.”
One of the councillors in favour of the project was still keen though and, according to Gibbins, helped promote moving the project to Royal Road near Point Petre. This time council approved a proposal for 13 big turbines or 30 smaller ones. That’s when citizens got organized. “We appealed council’s decision to the OMB,” says Gibbins, who’s an actuary by day. “After several preliminary hearings the OMB suspended proceedings because Vision Quest’s lawyers weren’t prepared.”
Concerned residents knew this was a temporary reprieve. Wind had gone underground but it hadn’t gone away; in fact, that OMB challenge is still on the books. Sure enough, in 2007 rumours began circulating about IPC Energy and other wind-power developers approaching individual landowners. “Because it involved private people, it was much more secretive, and that’s when we started APPEC [Alliance to Protect Prince Edward County] and began to hold information meetings,” Gibbins explains.
The Alliance hired environmental lawyer Eric Gillespie in 2008 and launched a lawsuit led by Big Island resident Ian Hanna, who was fighting a project by SkyPower on the island. They used the precautionary principle to challenge the government’s minimum 550 metre setback from dwellings, arguing it was an arbitrary distance with no basis in science. “The precautionary principle essentially says when you’re not sure about something that may cause harm to people, don’t go ahead,” Hanna tells me.
The case ended up in divisional court before a panel of three judges and in March 2011, Hanna lost. Then, in late June of that year the Court of Appeal rejected his application to appeal the lower court’s decision. “The court acknowledged to some extent that what we said was true, but they punted us to the Environmental Review Tribunal,” says Hanna. “The Green Energy Act is very clear; the appeals process reverses the onus... Originally it said you have to prove irreversible harm to humans and the environment, but it was eventually changed to you have to prove substantial harm to human beings or serious and irreversible harm to nature and the environment.” Hanna says this change was a result of significant pressure from both the public and the legal community.
Setbacks and noise receptors
The press attention the Hanna case received has meant more business for Eric Gillespie, who’s become the go-to lawyer for anti-wind advocates. His firm now has more than 50 wind files on the go. A key case, launched by John and Sylvia Wiggins near Creemore, alleges declining property values in direct proportion to proximity to turbines, as well as the lessor’s breach of its duty of care to the leaseholders. The suit may establish a precedent for this argument and have huge implications for the line-up of similar lawsuits behind it.
Like the one launched in January by neighbours surrounding the Clean Breeze Grafton site. It’s a $20 million suit against the landowner and developer. Gwyer Moore has been leading the anti-turbine campaign north of Grafton since a developer first appeared on the scene in the summer of 2009. “Energy Farming Ontario held an information meeting in Grafton and the community began to self-organize to find out more,” says Moore. “We formed the Alliance for the Protection of the Northumberland Hills [APNH] that September and organized our own public meeting in Centreton.”
The Green Energy Act’s 550 metre setback regulation for existing dwellings and building sites provided the only proven grounds for challenging turbines, so members of the Northumberland group mapped out the whole region from the 401 to County Road 22, and Highway 45 to Lyle Street, and identified eight vulnerable areas. Then they went door-to-door and spoke to these landowners to find out what their views were and inform them about the impact of turbines. “Most people didn’t realize how big the turbines were,” says Moore.
Nothing more was heard from the developer for two years, until notice of an “open house” about the Centreton project in November 2011. That event was just like the one in Roseneath described earlier – frustrating. A few months later test towers went up on two properties where farmers had signed turbine leases, again with no notice to the broader community. “We sent letters of concern about setbacks to the developer early in 2012, but never got a response,” Moore says.
The next communication from ZEP was a notice in Northumberland Today in late November 2012 about the January 9, 2013 public meeting. The Northumberland group quickly came to life again and created its own flyer about that meeting and mailed it to 2000 homes in the area. It also contacted Eric Gillespie and started working on three building permits they thought would effectively eliminate the possibility of turbines on the Scots Line property.
The permits were on schedule to be approved in January, but one day before the January 9th public meeting ZEP released its draft site plan for Scots Line with the following language:
“The legal effect of this publication is that Clean Breeze Wind Park Grafton LP is not required to consider any new noise receptors that come into existence after this day. This notice was first published 10th of January, 2013.”
A noise receptor is jargon for a dwelling or building site. ZEP’s pre-emptive announcement sent shivers through the Grafton group because it was banking on those three building permits to make it difficult to site any turbines on Scots Line.
Was ZEP’s checkmate fair process? Does it show any consideration for the interests of the community? “It’s hard not to think that the whole thing is orchestrated,” admits Moore. Both the property owner and developer of the Clean Breeze Grafton site were contacted for this story, but did not return calls or emails.
The three building permits near the Scots Line site were approved in late January, and the APNH is challenging the wind company’s move to disqualify them. But the group closer to the Centreton project has no setback argument to fall back on. Still, the DeJong’s farmhouse has become a hub of action, hosting a large meeting with conservative MPP Rob Milligan and providing the space for subcommittees to convene about petitions and letter-writing campaigns and research into municipal motions on turbines.
Neighbours helping neighbours
“I feel grateful that we’re surrounded by people who care about this,” says Lisa DeJong, who has come to know many more neighbours in the past months. But the anger about being sold down the road simmers right below the surface. “The government has just thrown us to the wolves,” says her husband Mark. “We have no control and no say whatsoever. We feel vulnerable and our hands are tied.”
The final meetings for the Centreton project are April 30 and May 1. “It’s the worst timing for agriculture; we’re at the heart of planting season,” says Mark. “It’s contrived,” adds Lisa. “One meeting is right after the other, but you need time to collect and digest information and get prepared for the second meeting.”
Like other anti-turbine activists, the DeJongs would like a moratorium on all projects until more research is done on the health impacts of low-frequency noise, shadow flicker and electromagnetic radiation. The evidence is mounting about sleep disturbance, headaches, anxiety, tinnitus and other symptoms felt by people who live up to two kilometres from turbines. But the current debate sounds a lot like “You show me your studies and I’ll show you mine.”
Everyone is anticipating solid answers from research by Health Canada that was launched last summer and is expected to be published in 2014. But this is cold comfort to people in Northumberland and Prince Edward County who are facing edgy developers who want to get shovels in the ground this fall before any change in policy, or government.
Ontario currently has about 1100 industrial wind turbines, producing just over 2000 megawatts of power; another 2500 megawatts are in the works to be installed by 2016.
A revised Feed-In-Tariff, FIT 2.0, released in May 2012 after an independent review, is the provincial government’s response to the turbine backlash from rural Ontarians. (Losing seven seats and its majority in 2011 showed the Liberals just how quickly the winds of change can reverse direction.) It allocates more points to projects where municipalities have been consulted and given approval. The more points you get, the greater the odds of receiving a Feed-In-Tariff contract. That’s one step towards better community process, but is it enough?
The new premier, Kathleen Wynne, was pelted with complaints about the Green Energy Act on her recent tour of the province. She has admitted “we didn’t get it perfect the first time around,” and has vowed to win back the trust of rural Ontario, personally taking on the role of Minister of Agriculture for her first year in office. Can she mend these torn communities; compensate wind activists for the time, energy and money they have poured into this fight; repair the psychic and physical damage of industrial wind turbines?
She’s known as a great listener, a good sign, since that’s what people have been begging for since turbines turned up. She might want to start by listening to the DeJong’s story about dealing with Zero Emission People. “When we met with the turbine company and told them that we had decided not to put turbines on our land, after seeing what was happening at Wolfe Island, the woman said, ‘You can’t do that!’ and I said, ‘Yes we can,” Lisa recalls. “But she was very forceful and tried to convince us. Then a guy from Germany came, along with the project manager, and they said your neighbours are going to do it so you might as well do it, too.” Lisa thought they were probably telling her neighbours the same thing, so she called them to set them straight.
There’s a huge sign on a property just outside Arthur, Ontario, where five turbines have gone up. It says: GOOD NEIGHBOURS PUT NEIGHBOURHOOD FIRST. SAYING NO CHANGES EVERYTHING. But problems with the Green Energy Act should not be thrashed out on the backs of rural neighbours, nor do the smokey-back-room tactics of turbine companies belong in the development of Ontario’s green energy infrastructure. Let us hope Premier Wynne will return civil discourse, good policy and fair process to the siting of turbines before one more community is irrevocably fractured.