Still some fight left in Amherst Island residents
They cling fiercely to the last strands of hope. Amherst Island residents opposed to industrial wind development still believe they can stop 29 massive (50 – storey) machines from permanently scarring their pastoral skyline from end to end of this tiny (20-km long) island. They believe they can protect endangered birds, bats and animals from the 25 kilometres of new service roads being carved into the agricultural landscape. They believe they can stop 44,000 truckloads from crossing the narrow passage between Amherst Island and the mainland.
Time, however, is running out. The developer, Windlectric, a unit of Algonquin Power & Utilities Corp., has its Renewable Energy Approval (REA) in hand. An appeal to an Environmental Review Tribunal failed to stop the project. Opponents will make another appeal to the courts later this month, hoping to convince a judge to send the matter back to the Tribunal to consider new evidence.
Meanwhile, the developer is pushing ahead despite shifting political currents. Amherst Island was, from the outset, an odd place to put an industrial wind project. The island sits across a narrow channel from the Lennox generating plant—with the capacity to power about eight per cent of Ontario’s homes—though it never does. Not even close. In the past five years it has operated less than two per cent of the time. Yet the plant earns Ontario Power Generation $7 million a month just for standing by.
Despite this vast amount of unused capacity, the province is building a new gas-powered electricity plant right next to the Lennox plant after Mississauga voters persuaded then-Premier Dalton McGuinty to move the partiallybuilt plant out of their community. Combined these two plants will have the capacity to power millions of households—with no reasonable prospect of ever doing so.
With so much electricity generation capability just a few kilometres away, it is clear the decision to build a comparatively puny intermittent electricity generating facility on the adjacent island wasn’t made to satisfy capacity needs. Or an economic rationale. When—or if—completed the Amherst Island wind project will be one of the most expensive such projects undertaken relative to its size—partly due to the cost of building temporary docks and a submarine cable across the channel.
It is the politics of green energy that drives this project. The politics, however, have become murkier in recent months.
In October, Premier Kathleen Wynne cancelled all new procurement of large renewable energy projects. By then Windlectric had already secured a power-purchase contract for its Amherst Island project and received its REA, but had not yet begun construction. Perhaps sensing the window might be closing, Windlectric filed a Notice of Commencement for the Amherst Island project on October 31. It hadn’t yet received every necessary approval from the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change (MOECC).
But back on Amherst Island, the developer was now grappling with a host municipality unhappy with the company’s Operations Plan and threatening to block the process until it was satisfied the plan was robust enough to protect residents and the Township’s infrastructure.
In late October, Loyalist Township officials wrote to Windlectric complaining the Operations Plan lacked detail and was inadequate to trigger the Road Use Agreement between the developer and the municipality.
Loyalist wrote the developer again in November, once more expressing disappointment at the lack of detail in the plan and that much more information was required so that it could properly evaluate the plan. Still nothing. In early December, the Township withdrew the building permit that would have allowed the construction of the mainland dock—required to service the project—citing a pending decision by MOECC relating to the developer’s Certificate of Property Use.
If the Township had hoped to bring attention the gaps in the Operations Plan, it failed. Instead, the company wrote to say that it was operating in full compliance with the law and that it frowned upon any suggestion otherwise. But yet offered no more detail in its Operations Plan.
Green energy legislation, however, gives renewable energy developers in Ontario a prescribed amount of time before the province gives it the green light—over the municipality’s objections.
By the year end, relations between the Township and the developer were becoming rather tense. Loyalist officials were continuing to press for more detail without response from the developer. On December 20, the Township’s CAO Robert Maddocks wrote again to say that in its opinion, the developer’s silence amounted to a fork in the road for the developer. Either it produced the detailed plan the Township was seeking in order to proceed, or it would stop the clock on the process, thereby bringing the project to a standstill.
“We assume from your silence that Algonquin Power Co. is in agreement with the Township’s position that the initial submission does not meet the requirements of the Road Use Agreement,” wrote Maddocks. “We reiterate our position that the forty-five day review period was not commenced by the submission of the incomplete preliminary Operations Plan.”
Ariel Bautista is a Senior Project Manager for Algonquin Power and leads the Windlectric project on Amherst Island. He says the company is continuing to work with Loyalist Township.
“The Road Use Agreement with Loyalist Township sets out the requirements for the parties to follow regarding the Operations Plan,” wrote Bautista in an email response to The Times. “In that regard, under the RUA, after obtaining and considering the Township’s comments on the draft Operations Plan, Windlectric submitted an updated Operations Plan to the Township in December 2016. Windlectric continues to work with Loyalist Township to finalize the Operations Plan under the RUA, which will include a town hall meeting.”
Relations on the ground are little better. According to Michelle Le Lay, the developer has handpicked a Community Liaison Committee, all but one of whom has a direct interest in the project. Other residents are permitted to attend the quarterly meetings but prohibited from asking questions or making comments.
“No one else is allowed to participate,” said Le Lay. “It is a total farce. Its insulting.”
Le Lay says the developer is required to hold community liaison meetings, but isn’t told how it should do this. She says the composition of the community liason committee reflects the developer’s view that they don’t have to tell the community anything more than it has already and that it doesn’t need the community’s approval.
“It’s pure arrogance,” said Le Lay.
Bautista denies Le Lay’s assertion.
“Pursuant to the Renewable Energy Approval, the Community Liaison Committee was established,” wrote Bautista. “The CLC consists of 5 members: three are residents from the island and two are employees of Windlectric. The three members from Amherst island are a former APAI president, a landowner participating in the project and a non-participating landowner.”
APAI’s Le Lay is sensing a different attitude at the MOECC. She says the regional officials have become more diligent in ensuring the developer is complying with the conditions of its REA.
Le Lay says the MOECC put the brakes on the project when the company filed a Notice of Commencement in late October.
“After that, the MOECC wrote them a few days later telling them they couldn’t start anything until they had received all their permits,” said Le Lay. “I don’t think the company calculated that the MOECC would become so concerned with compliance.
“Before they (MOECC officials) didn’t want to answer our questions. Now there is a change in the MOECC’s due diligence.
Le Lay also sees yet another hurdle ahead for the developer. While Windlectric has a RUA hammered out in principle with the Township, it has no such arrangement with the County of Lennox and Addington. Given how the material required to build this project will need to cross county roads, this seems to have been an oversight. Getting this agreement may not be a slam dunk for Windlectric. As of January 1, the new warden for the county is Loyalist Township mayor Bill Lowry.
“The county isn’t particularly happy with being overlooked in this process and don’t see a lot of benefits to it,” notes Le Lay. “So they haven’t signed an RUA yet.”
How does Le Lay explain the plight of Amherst Island residents to others?
“It is beyond reason,” says Le Lay. “ How do you explain something that is not explainable? Every aspect of this seems wrong. The wind isn’t particularly good here. The level of difficulty in building it is unbelievable. The cost to build on this island is really expensive—$6 million alone for two temporary docks. A submarine cable to the mainland. No rational person would see this as a good idea.
“It makes no sense financially. It makes no sense environmentally. It makes no sense.”