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Ontario Closes the Door to Offshore Wind Farms…Again

When the Province of Ontario put a moratorium on offshore wind farms in the Great Lakes in November 2006, the Ministry of Natural Resources, responsible for releasing Crown Land to renewable energy development, attributed the decision to a lack of information about the technology and its potential environmental impacts.

On lifting the moratorium in early 2008, the Minister publicly announced that enough information had been collected to “make better-informed decisions on offshore wind projects.”

Flash forward to February 2011. Almost three years after offshore wind was given the green light, during which time Ontario established North America’s first and only Feed-in Tariff for offshore wind generation, and a number of projects had begun in earnest, the same Liberal administration has imposed another moratorium, stunning offshore wind proponents and opponents alike. Once again, the reason given is the need for further environmental studies.

Unsurprisingly, the rationale for this wholly unexpected announcement has been met with a fair amount of skepticism. If the government had enough information in 2008 to lift the first moratorium, why is it now suddenly insufficient? A number of developers have begun pursuing their environmental approvals, which entail extensive consultation with various government agencies and the undertaking of numerous detailed studies. In fact, the areas identified by the government as lacking in information – noise impacts, ice loading, lakebed impacts and effects on drinking water – are mandatory requirements under the current regulations.

Predictably, many in the industry have labeled this a knee-jerk political reaction in an election year, aimed at appeasing Ontario’s growing anti-wind movement. As they see it, it’s no coincidence that both the Ministers of Energy and Environment preside over ridings with dedicated anti-offshore wind contingents. In hindsight, it may very well be that the first moratorium was imposed, not because of a lack of technical and environmental information, but also as a result of a spate of protests over a proposed project in Lake Erie.

It’s an understatement to say that offshore wind development in Ontario hasn’t been smooth sailing. Perhaps the most controversial project, a wind farm about 2 km off Toronto’s eastern shoreline, proposed by the municipally owned utility, Toronto Hydro, has been a sustained political nuisance for the incumbent Liberals.

Other communities on the Ontario sides of Lake Erie and Huron have also expressed vehement opposition to proposed offshore wind farms over the last three years, with municipal councils often voting unanimously against them. But with renewable energy projects exempted from municipal zoning bylaws under the province’s Green Energy Act, and communities unable to vote against them, opponents have turned to protesting at public meetings held by developers, dogging the Premier at public appearances and voicing their concerns in the media.

One of the main problems with offshore development in Ontario has been that the majority of planned wind farms aren’t really offshore at all, with most proposed between 1 and 5 km from shore. This is in part due to a technical assessment of sites favorable to offshore wind, commissioned by the government after the first moratorium was removed. The study identified and ranked 64 feasible sites of which those ranked highest were closest to shore. While it’s true that sites near shore reduce development complexity and transmission costs, it’s also true that they tend to create social conflict, a criterion not factored into the analysis, and perhaps the most responsible for offshore wind’s recent undoing.

Whatever the reason, the decision to halt offshore wind development for an indeterminate period is a huge, and likely, lasting, blow to Ontario’s fledgling offshore wind sector. Of all the Great Lakes jurisdictions, Ontario’s offshore wind resources are by far the greatest. Bordering four of the five Great Lakes, and with westerly winds prevailing towards its shores, Ontario’s offshore generation potential has been estimated at close to 35 GW – that’s almost 15 GW more than the province consumes on an average winter day.

Ontario also connects directly to eight US Great Lake states, several of which are pursuing offshore wind development in their own waters. With 155 coals plants operating in the Great Lakes basin, large-scale deployment of offshore wind would be a welcome addition, and eventual replacement, to the region’s current supply. It would also serve to revitalize the once vibrant manufacturing sector, on both sides of the border, which has been hard hit by the current recession.

While it’s difficult to surmise the consequences of the current moratorium, and to paint a realistic picture of what could have been, it’s indisputable that this recent about-face has given investors real reason for concern. If the government is willing to cancel the widely touted offshore wind FIT to score political points, even when independent power producers have already invested millions of dollars into feasibility and environmental studies, what other policy changes are in the pipeline?

And with anti-wind activists declaring the moratorium “a major victory,” it’s likely that this will embolden them further in their crusade to repeal the Green Energy Act and halt all wind development in the province indefinitely.

One might also argue that this most recent abandonment of offshore wind plans will have worse repercussions for the industry than the first; this time around developers have not only lost the right to pursue their projects, they’ve also lost the right to their project sites, meaning they’re going to have to start from scratch when, and if, the government allows them to move forward.

In the end, the only thing for certain is that offshore wind is off the table in Ontario for the foreseeable future, and much to the detriment of its clean energy future.

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