Well-Organized Opponents Have Developers’ Attention

Local groups determined to block wind projects have interfered with many developers’ plans for wind in Ontario.

By Mark Del Franco, North American Windpower, October 2009

Ontario-based developer AIM PowerGen proposed building four 9.9 MW wind projects in Harrow, Ontario, in 2007. But two years later, the company is still waiting for its building permit – a process that typically takes no more than six months to complete.

What’s the holdup? Local opponents have bird-dogged town officials to overly vet AIM PowerGen’s wind project, citing health concerns, according to Dave Timm, the developer’s vice president of strategic affairs.

On the surface, this is a minor issue, as wind developers frequently run into local snags. Granted, the concerns of some Harrow residents might be legitimate, but many industry watchers are concerned that a rash of health-related objections all around Ontario is more than a coincidence. Many say the so-called health concerns are actually a smoke screen for the real purpose: preventing wind projects.

Some developers have been shouted down at zoning meetings, while others now require police officers to keep order at town-hall functions. Still, other developers have had developments defaced. Such was the case at the Wolfe Island EcoPower Centre, where – as a show of protest – someone placed 86 cardboard hands (one for each turbine) firmly planted in the soil surrounding the turbines.

Then there’s the case of wind developer Glen Estill, president of Ontario-based Sky Generation, who owns two Ontario-based wind farms totaling 13.5 MW. For the last several months, a wind opponent has placed advertisements in Estill’s hometown newspaper derisively characterizing Estill as a “wind tycoon” with little regard for the community.

“In the last 18 months, the opposition in Ontario has really grown within a small but very vocal group,’) Timm says, adding that the local resistance steins from dedicated not-in-my-backyard (NIMBY) advocacy groups hell-bent on blocking wind projects.

“There are people who drive several hours from town to town to disrupt meetings,” Estill says. “It’s fairly obvious because of the intensity and distances they travel.”

NIMBYs are easy to spot at meetings, according to Timm. In fact, he says, the same faces show up every time. “If you do this long enough, you’ll see the same faces at every meeting,’

Estill agrees. “These people aren’t NIMBYs – they’re BANANAs,” using the acronym for “build absolutely nothing anytime near anything.”

NIMBY past and present

NIMBYs, of course, are not new, although the level of commitment and creativity employed by the opposition is eye-opening.

“I have not seen anything like this before,” says Chris Forrest, vice president of communications and marketing at the Canadian Wind Energy Association (CanWEA). “Groups are coordinating fully orchestrated media campaigns with a ferocity and an intensity that has really taken us by surprise,” he says.

A decade ago, wind opponents used environmental concerns, specifically the preservation of bird and bats, as the basis of their complaints. Then, for a while, it was turbine safety. Each time, the wind industry relied on scientific research and analysis to prevail. Now, however, the focus has shifted to health impacts, which Timm admits are “a bit more difficult to defend.”

But 10 years ago, the Internet wasn’t as entwined with our daily lives as it now. Today, anyone with a Web browser can crank out information to the masses. Developers, such as Timm, say the information found on the Internet looks more like misinformation than a fact-based argument.

“The argument has moved from the science realm to the media realm,” he says. “And these guys are very astute at crafting a message.”

Some may view the challenges in Ontario as emblematic of a growing industry. It is only natural, as wind energy grew from alternative to mainstream, that there would be some growing pains along the way.

As early as 2003, the province had barely 100 wind turbines installed. Currently, there are 588 turbines in operation. By 2012, Ontario expects more than 975 turbines to be in operation – nearly 40% more than today.

Now overlay those numbers against the fact that Ontario is not only Canada’s most inhabited province, but it also has the highest percentage of college-educated residents.

And it only figures to get worse with the passage of the Green Energy and Green Economy Act of 2009, Ontario’s sweeping reform bill meant to encourage wind development in the province.

Green Energy Act

Among the act’s major provisions is a call for tightening the standards to block wind projects. No longer can wind opponents object to wind projects because of aesthetics – a popular tactic of the past. Now, opponents must tie their objections to health concerns.

This opposition has gotten the attention of the highest levels of the Dalton McGuinty government. In June, Premier McGuinty himself angered many by saying he wouldn’t tolerate NIMBY-ism at the expense of renewable energy development. “NIMBY-ism will no longer prevail,” he stated.

However, the government’s plan to hinder the opposition seems to have only energized opponents.

“We lost our right to argue through the Green Energy Act,” says John Laforet, president of Wind Concerns Ontario, an anti-wind group. “The government took away our right to debate, and it angered thousands of people,” he says, adding that he represents 34 grassroots organizations in 21 counties throughout Ontario.

Laforet, who claims no corporate sponsors or deep-pocketed backers does not advocate violence against the projects. He admits, however that public meetings, for example can get rowdy and raucous. “It happens when wind developers stand up at the meetings and tell lies.”

Kerry Adler, CEO of SkyPower Corp., one of the largest developers in Canada, is used to dealing with NIMBYs. In fact, he encounters them in nearly every project.

Adler says the majority of people will either agree with your project or still have their minds changed with a sound and reasoned approach. However, some will oppose your project no matter what. These people, according to Adler, are the “loud minority who will go to any extreme to oppose your project’ ”

He adds that the silent majority need to become more vocal. “That’s a challenge we have. But if 50.1 percent of the people don’t oppose a wind project, it should be allowed to be built.”

Getting NIMBYs on your side

“It’s not a simple matter of providing better information about wind energy or getting political votes or reducing the regulatory hurdles NIMBYs can put in the way,” says Dave Hardy, president of consultancy Hardy Stevenson Associates. “The trick is turning the research into a pragmatic and workable action plan.

“Communities within which we are attempting to site wind projects aren’t singular entities,” he continues “Too often we view people at a meeting as having the same characteristics farmers or suburbanites or NIMBYs.

If we understand that they are members of families, places of work, faith groups – and if we structure our interactions with them in a way that recognizes what is influencing their decisions – we will have greater success in siting wind projects.”

Of course, not everyone who opposes a wind power project is a NIMBY. Some residents merely want clarity around the changing rules.

No matter how popular or well-intentioned a project, developers should always expect detractors. But those detractors might be managed more carefully.

For his part, Hardy says, “I get frustrated when the technical wind expert is thrust in front of a crowd for the first time, presents a 25-minute Power Point presentation and expects that no one will be opposed,” Hardy says. “Just because wind is environmentally sustainable doesn’t negate the fact that people may get upset.”

“We need to rely on the science. That’s how our industry combated concerns about birds and bats,” Timm recalls. “We should do the same with the NIMBY issue. There’s no evidence of a causal link between turbines and health impacts. Let’s bring the conversation back to science.”

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