Fifteen years ago, Nelson Coulas bought land in the Madawaska Valley, high on a hill with acres of birch and tamarack trees tumbling out below and a view that stretches across eastern Ontario and into Quebec. He used the spot as a weekend getaway and then, after retiring from his factory job, began to build his dream home on the site this year – a three-bedroom log cabin with high ceilings and big windows positioned to perfectly capture the view.
He laid the foundation, raised the walls and begun to cut channels through the hand-hewn logs to accommodate wiring. But plans to erect a wind turbine less than a kilometre from Mr. Coulas’s cabin have dampened his desire to finish the job. One might think SkyPower, the company responsible for the project, would want to allay his fears, but Mr. Coulas says his concerns have been met with silence, punctuated by occasional condescension.
For years there has been a public-policy debate about how much turbines can contribute to Canada’s energy supply – and the costs associated with that contribution – but Mr. Coulas’s experience underscores the latest front in the wind battles: public relations.
Two SkyPower employees arrived on Mr. Coulas’s property last month, wanting to take photographs of the proposed windmill site for promotional purposes.
He let them – begrudgingly – and then asked some questions about safety. One of the men said the turbine probably would not catch fire, but grew impatient when Mr. Coulas persisted with his inquiries.
“He said, ‘I’m not doing an interview,’ and left,” Mr. Coulas said. “I was trying to educate myself on these turbines. He was the guy who should have been able to answer my concerns. But he wasn’t available for that.”
Mr. Coulas’s neighbours tell similar stories. Residents complain that straight answers are scarce, with towers designed to measure wind speed popping up across the valley, even as local officials say they have not received any applications for zoning bylaw changes. A community group called Save Our Skyline, or S.O.S. Renfrew County, has formed to fight at least four separate proposals along the Madawaska Valley. Two weeks ago, S.O.S. joined with 23 other local groups to create Wind Concerns, an umbrella organization dedicated to “protecting rural Ontario for future generations.”
Similar fights are underway across the rest of Canada. A community group in Summerside, P.E.I., last month convinced their town council to delay approval of a four-turbine farm. In Toronto, a public meeting to discuss placing windmills along the Scarborough Bluffs had to be cancelled when the chosen venue proved too small to contain the hundreds of people who showed up.
Activists now decry windmills with a fervour once reserved for nuclear plants. To some, it seems strange to waste time railing against a power source that does not generate greenhouse gases, is relatively quick to construct and can serve as a powerful symbol of a community’s environmental convictions. They say critics are only displaying a modern strain of “Not In My Backyard” syndrome.
Opponents, however, say they are driven by concerns about windmills’ effects on everything from bird migration to health to property values to earthworms.
To some degree, the extent of such opposition can be attributed to bungled their community relations, with wind power companies acting more like stereotypical land developers than environmental ambassadors.
“Sometimes, with the big companies, you have the problem that they develop it like a large industrial project,” said Shawn Patrick Stensil, a campaigner with Greenpeace Canada. “They say, ‘This is what we’re going to do, we’ll have a few open houses and we’re done.’ ”
It was an open house held by SkyPower last May that first angered Lou Eyamie, the president of S.O.S. Renfrew County. The event was designed to showcase a proposal for six turbines in the hills surrounding Wilno, a small town south of Ontario’s Algonquin Provincial Park. Mr. Eyamie, who works in the auto sector, said he arrived feeling more curious than concerned, but grew frustrated as the company’s representative failed to answer basic questions.
“We got no answers. They’d say, ‘Oh, that’s not my area — go see that guy over there,’ ” Mr. Eyamie said. “But when we went over there, the guy was not there or he didn’t know the answer either. We kind of got the runaround like that.”
Members of the public were encouraged to complete question cards or send an e-mail to the company. E-mails were answered with form letters and the question cards were never answered, Mr. Eyamie said. He does admit receiving a pair of letters from SkyPower this September. The first letter refers to projects in “Prince Edward County” — an area three hours south of Wilno. The second letter promises “transparent, two-way dialogue.”
“If SkyPower had a real desire to communicate with the people of the valley, then I would suggest that the people who have expertise in the areas of concern should have been available to answer the many questions already posed to SkyPower at your open houses,” Mr. Eyamie wrote back to the company.
S.O.S. has now held a half dozen of its own community information meetings across Renfrew County. The organization admits the events are not meant as public debates but a chance for them to present their own views on wind power.
At one held in a legion hall last month, 60 people sat on wooden chairs while S.O.S. ran through two hours of slides, videos and taped testimonials. Also in the audience was Dan Babcock, SkyPower’s director of project development and one of the representatives who met with Mr. Coulas. After the event, he politely but adamantly declined to speak with the press. (“I’m not here doing interviews,” he said). Mr. Babcock suggested a reporter contact another SkyPower employee in Toronto. The National Post made repeated attempts to obtain comment from the company, but neither phone calls nor e-mails were returned over several days, even when a consultant who occasionally works for SkyPower offered his assistance in arranging an interview.
There are other examples of frayed connections, even with projects boasting a long history of community consultation and support among local residents. Canadian Renewable Energy, a developer building a $410-million project on Wolfe Island near Kingston, Ont., recently sent a cease-and-desist letter to Chris Brown, a musician who has played with the Barenaked Ladies and Ani DiFranco. The company was angered by an e-mail Mr. Brown sent to participants in a local wind energy conference, stating he hoped the event would prevent the Wolfe Island project from becoming “an autopsy of grid monopoly and community exclusion.”
The letter riled some community members, particularly because Mr. Brown was a member of a community liaison committee formed by the company to address local concerns. Most residents support the creation of a wind farm on the island, but would like the plans modified to reduce its effect on bird migration routes and sensitive wetlands, said Mark Mattson of Lake Ontario Waterkeeper, an environmental group that supports wind power in principle but is critical of the Wolfe Island project.
“What’s happening is many of these projects are going into areas that are the cheapest, in other words the most economical for the company, which is fine — they should be doing that,” Mr. Mattson said. “But they’re not going in the areas that are best from an environmental or planning perspective and I think that’s why there is so much turmoil and concern.”
Canadian Renewable Energy contends it has been negotiating with residents for nearly four years and that a government review found the current version of the project addressed local concerns. Geoff Carnegie, the development manager for wind projects of Canadian Hydro Developers, the firm’s parent company, said his company felt Mr. Brown’s accusations of community exclusion were unfair and needed to be addressed. He said the threat of a lawsuit was unlikely to damage the company’s reputation or relationship with the wider community.
“We’re all open for criticism of the project,” he said. “If we are not doing something properly, we are the first ones to say come tell us and we’ll work through it. But it has to be reasonable and it has to be appropriate.”
Mr. Carnegie said his company recognizes it needs community support for its project and has gone so far as to guarantee the local municipality a share of the project’s revenue.
Indeed, most wind developers have recognized a need to woo support from local residents, said Sean Whittaker, vice-president of policy for the Canadian Wind Energy Association. When told of the experience of Mr. Coulas and his neighbours, Mr. Whittaker said he was “stunned,” that it sounded like behaviour from a previous era in his industry.
“There’s a saying among many developers that there are five Cs of project development,” Mr. Whittaker said. “Those are: communication, communication, communication, construction and communication. Half of the battle in a wind farm is the technical stuff. But the other half is public acceptance. If you don’t have public acceptance, then the best technical project isn’t going to fly.”
Mr. Whittaker said it is unlikely any project will receive unanimous support from community members, but most people in the wind industry recognize they need to find as many acolytes as possible.
“It can cost $1-million to just get a medium-sized project, before you even get a contract,” he said. “And that can be stopped if you don’t communicate well with the public.”
Observers of the energy sector suggest there are myriad ways the relationship between communities and wind power developers could be improved. Mr. Mattson suggested provincial governments need to take a greater role in mediating disputes over wind projects. It would also help if more projects were developed by local groups or municipalities, rather than large energy companies, according to Mr. Stensil of Greenpeace.
He also noted an environment of secrecy is created by the way Ontario and other provinces develop their energy supply, by forcing companies to bid for individual contracts. Mr. Stensil said it would be better if all wind projects were offered a standard price for the power they generate.
“How can you have an upfront discussion with the community about what the company is planning when you have to remain competitive against other companies?” he said. “Right now, a company wins a bid and suddenly it’s in their backyard.”
For Mr. Coulas, it is not exactly clear when he will have a turbine spinning within walking distance of his home. But he figures the least SkyPower can do is answer a few questions.
“Let me ask my questions,” he said. “And at least have the decency to give me a moment to get my answers.”