When it comes to wind power in Ontario, it seems the closer you live to the wind power production, the less likely you are to like it.
Rural Ontarians have turned their backs on the Liberal government that has championed a dramatic growth of wind-powered electricity since 2007. When the Liberals lost their majority in 2011, many of the seats they lost were in rural ridings that have seen the growth of wind power, places such as Chatham-Kent-Essex and Huron-Bruce.
Acrimony over wind power was not the only reason for those losses, but it was definitely a factor. Groups from Amherst Island to Niagara Region to West Grey and beyond are fighting wind projects. Some Ontario families have sued, alleging that wind turbines violate their rights under the Charter.
But urbanites keep voting the Liberals back in: hanging on to dozens of urban ridings allowed Dalton McGuinty to form a minority government in 2011 and Kathleen Wynne’s 2014 majority win was fueled in large part by racking up riding victories in the GTA and Ottawa region.
Are wind turbines a sign that the government is beholden to urban voters who are supporting an environmental agenda as long as they don’t have to bear the consequences?
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“When you look at the map, and see the Liberals elected around the Greater Golden Horseshoe, yeah, there’s a gap,” says Janet Horner, Chair of the Rural Ontario Institute.
But critics of wind power say their frustration isn’t with urban voters.
“I never thought of wind turbines as an urban-rural divide,” says Progressive Conservative MPP Vic Fedeli, who recently saw a proposed wind farm in his riding defeated in the face of widespread public criticism. “I never saw it. Am I opposed to wind turbines? Yes. Not because they’re in rural Ontario or northern Ontario, but because they’re damaging our [provincial] finances.”
So what is it about Ontario's green energy policies that drive so many rural residents to distraction?
Critics of wind power cite a litany of harms resulting from close proximity to wind turbines – from health impacts to lowered property values and stray voltage from transmission lines.
“Rural people, because they live the reality of the turbines, get to learn more about the industry and understand what a mistake it’s been,” says Kincardine’s Deputy Mayor Jacqueline Faubert.
But apart from the alleged harms, what angers many rural dwellers is what they see as a lack of consultation. Horner says one of the primary objections to wind turbine development is the lack of controls local communities have over planning. Residents of Toronto have planning powers over a real estate developer wanting to build a 100-metre office or apartment tower, but municipalities looking to control the construction of a 100-metre wind turbine have to rely on the goodwill of the energy company involved.
The Green Energy and Green Economy Act, passed in 2009, gave the provincial government the capacity to permit renewable power “goods, services and technologies” and explicitly exempted green energy projects from municipal by-laws, including planning powers.
In response to the criticism throughout rural Ontario, the Liberals have modified the rules for wind projects, emphasizing the need for substantial consultation in new proposals. The province’s prior wind energy program added a requirement for local municipal support, but only in 2014. The government hopes new requirements will give leaders the leverage they need to land the best possible deals for their communities.
Horner and Faubert both say some of the uproar could be avoided if residents felt their towns were getting a larger share of the financial or employment benefits. While large electrical projects in Ontario have traditionally been exempt from municipal planning even before the Green Energy Act, those projects were also traditionally the kind of large, centralized plants that brought lots of jobs to a town.
In terms of making sure host communities benefit from the presence of wind power, Horner cites the experience in Europe, where community benefits are more generous and clearly spelled out prior to the construction of new wind projects. Faubert suggested if more of the wind projects were locally owned, keeping the money in the community, there might also be less opposition. (Wind energy cooperatives have been successful in Denmark.)
Not all of rural Ontario is opposed to wind farms in their backyards. In Chatham-Kent, the municipal council has signed agreements for 450 turbines providing 800 megawatts of power. Mayor Randy Hope says there’s probably room for 100 or so more turbines before, as he puts it, “other communities will need to play their role.”
“Leadership is always an issue,” Hope says. Prior to the passage of the Green Energy Act, "I suggested the province just leave us alone with the planning powers we had, but the government picked another direction.”
Instead of the planning powers that Hope and the Chatham-Kent council had been using, since 2006, to try and lure green energy jobs to the region, Hope has had to use persuasion on large energy firms. That said, he also wouldn’t mind if his constituents saw a more direct benefit from hosting one of the largest clusters of wind turbines in Canada.
“I think the community as a whole should be rewarded. We altered our landscape. Why can’t the people in my community be rewarded with lower hydro rates?”
Even if Queen’s Park brings in rules for large wind projects that more clearly spell out the benefits local communities can expect, this likely won’t be the last perceived urban-rural divide over environmental issues. Whether it’s the use of neonicotinoid pesticides, the spring bear hunt, or the forestry industry, there are plenty of other issues where urban and rural Ontarians seem to have different priorities.
“We owe each other respect,” says Janet Horner. “We are intertwined, interdependent. Sixty-five per cent of what’s grown in rural Ontario is processed in Ontario’s urban areas. If we don’t have a healthy countryside, we won’t have a vital urban area either.”
Image credit: Zach Stern/flickr