Municipalities get greater voice in energy projects

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The Kathleen Wynne government is revamping the controversial approval process for large wind and solar projects to give municipalities a much greater voice, QMI Agency has learned.

The locating of such projects has pitted communities and neighbours against each other across Ontario, and the premier had promised she would enhance local input.

Ontario Energy Minister Bob Chiarelli will announce Thursday that his ministry is cancelling the feed-in tariff (FIT) program for major renewable projects and replacing it with a competitive procurement process that will require developers to work with municipalities before they seek approval from the Ontario Power Authority (OPA).

Under the existing process, a proponent can go directly to the OPA.

Chiarelli, scheduled to speak to the CanSIA Solar Ontario Conference in Niagara Falls, Ont., will also reveal the government intends to work with municipalities to increase property taxes paid on wind turbine towers.

The FIT program will continue for "micro and small" renewable projects, and priority points will be awarded to renewable projects that are led by or partnered with municipalities.

"They will have a much stronger voice in all of the significant energy projects," Chiarelli told QMI Agency. "Communities spoke, mayors spoke and we listened."

Funding will be made available to help municipalities draw up local energy plans on a voluntary basis. Such planning would be used in the procurement process for large renewable energy projects to ensure they land in willing communities where the power is needed and can be easily hooked up to the transmission grid.

"We believe that process will result in a much higher level of buy-in and participation by municipalities," Chiarelli said. "Most of the challenges and problems, almost all ... have to do with wind."

Many municipalities have complained that under the Ontario Green Energy Act, they lost control over where large wind farms and other projects were placed in their communities.

While Wynne has not offered municipal governments a veto over projects, she has committed to provide them with a stronger role in the approval process.

Under the new procurement process, a large wind farm that is unwanted by the locals could easily find itself in competition with another project that has successfully secured support from a nearby municipality.

The OPA will be told to work with municipalities on sites and site planning.

And in a new twist, a community seeking a micro-FIT contract to build a public facility such as an arena with a solar rooftop won't have to wait until the project is complete before receiving approval from the OPA.

The opposition to wind turbines has been strong in Norfolk County. Some residents living next to one of the early wind farms in Ontario, in the far west end of the county, have insisted the turbines are ruining their health.

A proposal to put four large turbines just east of Port Ryerse has generated protest from residents in that village.

Council has been caught in between, listening to complaints but without any real power to act.

Told of the apparent change in government policy, Simcoe Coun. Charlie Luke called the news "excellent."

Luke said he credits the government's change of heart "to the small people" who have spoken out against green energy projects across the province, including in Norfolk.

"I think we're a big part of it," said Luke, who tabled a motion at council two weeks ago calling for the county to declare itself "an unwilling host" to industrial wind turbines.

"I'm starting to get some faith in this premier," he said.

— with files from Daniel R. Pearce




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