Kinder, gentler wind energy producers are emerging, the kind that share the benefits from wind installations with their neighbours and their community. They’re wading into a maelstrom of discontent, but it appears their approach is striking a chord in some parts of rural Canada.
Last week the Canadian Wind Energy Association (CanWEA), an advocacy group for wind producers, reported 2013 has been a record year for new wind capacity being added to provincial grids.
The association says 20 projects came on stream and almost 1,600 megawatts (MW) of new capacity was added. That’s up from the previous high of 1,267 MW in 2011.
It’s still not a huge number in terms of the total amount of energy produced in Canada. Wind accounts for just three per cent of the overall production. One megawatt represents enough power to supply electricity to 300 homes for one year.
But a record performance is significant — particularly in Ontario, which despite being an often-unfriendly environment for wind power, still accounted for more than one-quarter of the new production.
So what’s up?
Well, says association president Robert Hornung, among other things, wind energy producers are learning to be better corporate citizens. They’re taking a more collegial approach to community liaison.
They know it stinks when they’re collecting the proceeds from a lease and their neighbours, who are also the neighbours of their turbine, have to simply sit there and suck it up.
So wind energy producers are trying something new. Hornung points to a broad range of new approaches to community benefits underway for wind power projects, designed to distribute the benefits more broadly and visibly within communities.
For example, some new wind energy projects are partially owned by municipal governments.
Others have significant investment from the local community.
In others, wind farm developers have created what are called community “vibrancy” funds, to support priority initiatives identified by the community. These initiatives likely have nothing to do with wind power, but they’re important to the community.
And in still others, the ones that likely affect farmers the most, wind project developers are not only providing lease income to landowners hosting wind turbines, but providing financial payments to neighbouring landowners as well.
CanWEA has developed a best practices guide for community engagement and public participation in developing wind power projects, and supplied all municipalities in Ontario with a copy. I haven’t seen it, but I imagine the message PLAY NICE WITH OTHERS is not hard to find.
Finally, CanWEA is also offering professional development opportunities for its members, to help them successfully implement these best practices.
“These have been very positive developments,” says Hornung. “Cookie cutter approaches are impossible with wind generation. Every community is unique and projects and community benefits need to be tailored to the situation, and based on discussion and negotiation to ensure that projects are seen as a win-win.”
The timing for a more harmonious approach to wind power generation in Ontario is important. In the next three years, the province is expected to double its current capacity of 2,500 MW. Hornung credits wind energy’s cost-competitiveness, technology evolution that requires lower wind speeds to turn turbine blades, environmental benefits and economic benefits delivered to rural communities are the main reasons for the increase.
So maybe when it comes to wind energy, the tides have turned. But rural Canada, where wind energy is captured, needs to see itself as a full partner in this sector. The relationship must keep improving.