CHESTERVILLE — The Ontario Federation of Agriculture consciously chose not to speak out on wind power during last fall’s provincial election, says the president of the organization that called for a freeze on new wind farms at the beginning of this year.
Mark Wales, keynote speaker at the Dundas Federation of Agriculture’s Feb. 29 annual general meeting, acknowledged the OFA "heard a lot of members through the fall" on the issue.
However, he told The AgriNews, "We didn’t want to make this an election issue. If we had done this [demand a moratorium] back in the summer or early fall, then it would have politicized the election, and we would’ve got screwed 12 ways to Sunday."
Wales and the OFA instead made headlines by urging Dalton McGuinty’s newly re-instated government to "suspend the invasion of rural Ontario with industrial wind turbines," on Jan. 20.
"We couldn’t leave it really any longer," Wales explained, as the bustling group of local farmers packed up tables and chairs inside Chesterville’s Nelson LaPrade Centre. "And a lot of members were saying, ‘We’re backing you,’ but we’re not hearing it loud enough.’ So we finally had to say [to the government], ‘Don’t issue any more contracts until you’ve got this right’."
Asked if staying silent about those concerns during the 2011 campaign was really any less political than speaking up, he began by noting the polarization between the governing Liberals and the Conservative opposition on wind power and the Green Energy Act. "There were two extreme positions, fundamentally, between the two parties that could end up running the province," he observed.
Wales asserted that even before the OFA’s moratorium call, the organization "had been saying for a long time that there’s a whole lot of issues that need to be addressed" in the province’s renewable energy policies. He noted as examples the OFA’s successful lobby for an increase in the minimum mandated setback distance from wind turbines, to 550 metres, and the reversal of a solar-rate cut for some rural applicants.
The OFA remains a "strong supporter" of wind energy, "but we’ve got to get it right," he emphasized.
The province’s review of the Feed-In Tariff program — which began Oct. 31 and should wrap up with a report released at the end of March — is the "perfect time" to solve the wind-power concerns highlighted by the OFA, according to the president. This includes, he said, the Ontario auditor’s December revelation that surplus electricity generated in Ontario at night – including wind power — is exported for almost nothing. As a solution to that particular problem, he suggested the province should promote energy storage systems that collect the nocturnal power from wind turbines until needed during the day. The technology does exist, he insisted. "Batteries are the easy way to go. It’s not cheap, but you give a little incentive and you can make it happen."
He also pointed to concerns about negative health impacts around turbines as another matter still unresolved. It’s not enough for the province to have only conducted a review of existing literature, he said. "Sooner or later, they’re going to have to debunk what’s false or deal with the stuff that’s true.
"If you have a problem, solve it, and then tell people you’ve solved it. Don’t pretend it never happened in the first place. We’ve been saying, ‘Solve these things,’ [and] they haven’t been."
The OFA contends that the 550-metre minimum turbine setback distance — considered safe for residential neighbours — ought to equally apply to the homes of farmers hosting the towering windmills on their land. Again, the province has yet to deal with this discrepancy, the president said.
The OFA also wants assurances that a farm’s proximity to wind turbines won’t encumber future barn construction projects — potentially jeopardizing farm families’ succession plans — under minimum distance separation rules for agricultural buildings that would end up protecting unmanned windmills from livestock odours in this case.
The litany of unaddressed concerns, according to the OFA’s Jan. 20 statements, has left rural Ontario seriously divided over wind power.
Things have "gotten out of control," Wales said Feb. 29, adding that farmers are now involved in lawsuits because they’ve signed a lease with a renewable energy company or have a turbine on their property.
Resentment, he conceded, has also played a role in a riven rural Ontario. As alternative energy developers have fanned through rural Ontario, not every farmer has had the good fortune to be approached with a land-optioning offer.