The secret to securing local support for wind energy? Money and power

OPINION: Ontario swung for the fences on wind power but outraged rural communities in the process. They should’ve taken a gentler approach
By John Michael McGrath - Published on March 28, 2017
Wind turbines stand next to a farm.
Large wind turbines have been a sore spot for many residents of rural Ontario communities. (michael_swan/Flickr)

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The Ontario Liberals have almost entirely abandoned their renewable energy policies, though of course they’d rather not say so. The government cancelled the procurement of new large wind and solar projects last fall, and later in the year further cut the feed-in tariff program that supported smaller ventures. Energy Minister Glenn Thibeault says the government will take a “technology-neutral” approach to choosing future energy sources — an implicit break with the last decade of policy that made special provisions for renewable power.

It’s easy to see why: the Liberals’ pursuit of wind power has been singularly unpopular in rural Ontario, where dozens of turbines now tower over agricultural lands. New research from Western University, however, suggests that needn’t have been the case. Chad Walker, a PhD student in geography, says examples from other countries showed a better way forward — one Nova Scotia followed but Ontario ignored.

The not-so-secret sauce is money: making sure local communities see a direct benefit from hosting wind turbines, even letting them invest in projects and receive dividends from them. That’s what has set Nova Scotia’s recent experience apart from this province’s, Walker says.

“What we call ‘distributive justice’ is playing a role in shaping the high levels of support in Nova Scotia, in comparison to much higher levels of opposition in Ontario,” he explains. And distributive justice doesn’t just mean cutting a big cheque — it’s often more important that the money be apportioned fairly, even if the total sum a given community receives is smaller.

For years, critics of wind energy in rural jurisdictions have cited the community-based approaches taken in other countries as counter-examples to Ontario’s top-down tactics. In Denmark and Germany, for example, local communities have more control over wind projects, as well as financial stakes in their success. Residents can invest directly in local projects, guaranteeing them a share of the income (and, not incidentally, creating the perception that more money is staying “in the community”).

Walker polled residents near wind projects in Nova Scotia and in Ontario, asking whether they supported the existing turbines and whether they’d like more to be built. His findings make clear what effects the provinces’ policy approaches have had. In Nova Scotia, with its community-oriented policies, large majorities (80 per cent and 66 per cent) said yes. In Ontario, 27 per cent of respondents supported existing projects and just 20 per cent wanted to see more.

Walker insists the difference is not simply about money — Nova Scotia also gave municipalities more procedural power over wind energy applications without allowing them an unchecked veto. Still, given the unpopularity of wind energy across vast swaths of this province, Walker’s research suggests Ontario missed an opportunity.

“They were definitely aware, and specifically cited the fact that wind energy does better when communities keep more of the benefits,” Walker says. “The information was out there, but for one reason or another Ontario went another direction.”


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The Liberals didn’t do so without reason. With the 2009 Green Energy and Green Economy Act, they were trying to do something big. The government wanted to create an inviting enough market — with financial incentives and permissive regulations — to build many wind and solar energy projects quickly. This included, notoriously, exempting green energy projects from municipal planning reviews (an exemption Hydro One and Ontario Power Generation had always enjoyed, but that rankled rural communities anyway). As far as encouraging new construction, the act succeeded: wind now makes up 11 per cent of Ontario’s installed capacity and 6 per cent of its annual generation.

It’s tempting to assume Nova Scotia must therefore have seen slower progress than Ontario has, given the province placed greater emphasis on community benefit-sharing in crafting its renewable-energy policies. Yet the Maritime province actually gets a slightly higher share of its electricity from wind power than we do — 14 per cent installed capacity to Ontario’s 11 per cent. And, as in Ontario, it comes from infrastructure built since 2007.

(Scale matters, of course, and Nova Scotia is a small province, with a population roughly the same as Ottawa’s. Its wind power comes from 300 or so turbines in total; some Ontario wind farms have more than 100 turbines each.)

Walker’s point, however, is that a look at the two provinces clearly reveals which supports renewable energy more strongly over the long term. Even if Nova Scotia’s policies were more burdensome to energy companies — and their rapid progress suggests the notion is debatable — voters there aren’t looking to rip up green energy contracts as some Ontario conservatives would like to. Sustainable-energy policy has to be politically sustainable, too.

Photo courtesy of michael_swan and licensed for commercial use under a Creative Commons licence. (See the uncropped version.)

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