(Photo retrieved from Pixabay).

Seeing green: the continuing clash between community and renewables

Julie Leroux, spokesperson for Save the Nation, says if Renewable Energy Systems (RES) wants to put an operations office in the Caledonia community centre, it’d be asking the community to “sell its soul.”

That idea was presented publicly at The Nation’s council meeting on July 24.

RES is the company behind the proposed Eastern Fields Wind Power Project in St-Bernardin. Lucas Reindler is its project manager; in a follow-up interview, he said the idea has been bounced around since last fall.

During his presentation, Reindler reiterated the “community benefits” proposed by RES. The most notable point is a Local Electricity Discount where residents nearest to the turbines would have a yearly discount off their bill. The developer has previously used the program in Europe. When The Review first reported on the program, the discounts to residents would total $50,000 per year, it has since been upped to $60,000.

A second proposed benefit is a $4,000 bursary program for local students disbursed every other year.

Finally, Reindler said RES would support “special projects” in conjunction with The Nation.

One of the proposed special projects is to renovate the Caledonia community centre.

“Certainly that works in our interest if we can end up using that facility as an operations office,” said Reindler.

While that support would come pending the final approval of the project, Reindler said in a follow-up interview that the municipality has already sought corporate sponsorship from RES despite having declared itself an “unwilling host” in March.

Corporate support

The Review emailed council asking if that was true and received three answers.

The first came from councillor Marc Laflèche, who is also the president of the Union des Cultivateurs Franco-Ontariens. He said he asked RES to be a sponsor for the 2016 and 2017 editions of the UCFO’s annual golf tournament.

“I didn’t hesitate one second to ask for sponsorship,” he wrote. “RES and Scotiabank were our major sponsors.”

The second answer came from councillor Marie-Noëlle Lanthier, who represents the area including St-Bernardin.

Lanthier is also the director for the east region of the Association of Francophone Municipalities of Ontario. She said RES was approached as a corporate sponsor for this year’s AFMO conference, which will take place in The Nation in September.

She wrote, “It’s not the municipality’s project, it’s support for AFMO and the organization of the conference.”

However, AFMO’s web page for this year’s conference says,” The Association of Francophone Municipalities of Ontario, in partnership with the Municipality of The Nation, is pleased to invite you to our 28th annual conference.”

Finally, Mayor François St. Amour addressed how the municipality declaring itself an unwilling host affects the development of the wind farm.

Essentially, he said it has no impact. 

That was echoed by Reindler, “It just so happens in the law today in Ontario municipalities don’t have a say and they can’t veto a project.”

“We got to make the best of a situation where we have no control,” said St. Amour. “If they do get approved the phase 2, I’m not going to refuse any money.”

The Review also asked the mayor if getting financial sponsorship while declaring itself an unwilling host made for bad optics.

“No,” he said. 

He added, “A large part of the population didn’t want (the turbines).I was always honest in saying we can do it, but it won’t change anything,” talking about the municipality declaring itself an unwilling host.

Community benefits

Councillor Laflèche said in his email, “RES doesn’t need to show support, but as a good corporate citizen, it wants to do its part for the sector of St-Bernardin.”

“Right now we are, out of good faith, listening to the community to augment and to improve our benefits program,” said Reindler. 

While true—there is nothing that forces a developer to bring in community benefits—projects were also scored on leaseholder support, community support and community agreement throughout the province’s Large Renewable Procurement process. 

The Eastern Fields Wind project is one of only three approved LRP projects with “No” in all of the above categories.

John Cannella is a spokesperson for the Independent Electricity System Operator, which approved the LRP projects.

He said in an email that projects that didn’t receive initial community support may have been awarded a contract if the connection point was less contested,  if the project was smaller, and/or if the “pricing was more aggressive than its competitors.”

For Julie Leroux of Save the Nation, those benefits feel like the community is “being bought with our own money.”

She wonders at what cost those benefits come, both from a health perspective and financially.

She said the money RES will be allocating to the community benefits is “crumbs” compared to how much it will be making. 

Reindler declined to comment on how much money RES is anticipating to make, but said, “We’re not just looking to give handouts.” 

And when it comes to health, “We stand behind the science, behind the health impact. We don’t see scientific evidence to support that. Wind farms have been operational in Canada for 25 years. Where are the hospitals full of people if wind farms are hurting people?”

While there may not be hospitals full of people, Wind Concerns Ontario, a citizens group against wind farms, published a report in May outlining the response to 3,180 complaints received by the Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change against wind turbine operations between 2006 and 2014.

Global News reported the documents show the ministry did not investigate in 54 per cent of cases, and deferred responding in another 14 per cent.

The research

The setback distance—the minimum distance a turbine must be from a residence—is at the heart of the health debate.

In Ontario the setback is 550 metres, which “was developed by modeling propagation of turbine noise towards a receptor.”

During his presentation, Reindler said the project’s current plan shows only a “handful” of residences within the 550-600 meter range. Most are more than a kilometre away from the nearest turbine. He added that the minimum setback was based on scientific evidence but in a discussion with members of Save the Nation after the presentation, Reindler clarified to say it was based on best practices.

On the flip side, there are no scientific studies that currently call for a minimum setback from residences.

Most studies rely on self-reported symptoms, which are difficult to test scientifically. The federal government has undertaken literature reviews and research and says, “there have been no field studies that have included objectively measured health-related endpoints in their study design, which could lend support to some of the self-reported claims derived from questionnaires.”

The Chief Medical Officer of Health of Ontario published a report in 2010. It reads, “The review concludes that while some people living near wind turbines report symptoms such as dizziness, headaches, and sleep disturbance, the scientific evidence available to date does not demonstrate a direct causal link between wind turbine noise and adverse health effects.”

That idea of looking for a direct causal link is challenged in a 2013 article published in Canadian Family Physician.

It states, “Noise-induced annoyance is acknowledged to be an adverse health effect,” and concludes, “The documented symptoms are usually stress disorder–type diseases acting via indirect pathways and can represent serious harm to human health… In addition, their contributions to clinical studies are urgently needed to clarify the relationship between IWT exposure and human health and to inform regulations that will protect physical, mental, and social well-being.”

Before construction

RES recently revised its plan for the turbine locations and there are still many factors in the decision to cut down to the final nine machines.

Reindler said RES is still waiting on two provincial reports: the final environmental review from the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, and the final noise assessment from the Ministry of the Environment.

He added that there’s still more public consultation to be done to find “fatal flaws in any locations we didn’t know about.” 

He said RES will ensure to make the final location selection public before starting construction.

“A project of nine turbines likely won’t take that long to build,” he said. “It’ll likely be done in three to four months.”

Until then, Leroux and Save the Nation will be busy at work examining the project’s public reports and studies.

“Our job is to go through each report with a fine-toothed comb to try and find where they cut corners,” said Leroux, “and to make sure they do their homework right.”

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