Great Lakes barrier shakes developers

CANADA: Ontario's newly proposed regulation that insists offshore turbines are located at least five kilometres from the shore could shake the confidence of investors in the nascent sector.

Toronto Hydro has invested around C$1million in an area that is now out of bounds to wind
Toronto Hydro has invested around C$1million in an area that is now out of bounds to wind

The province's environment ministry released a so-called setback draft regulation in June, ensuring that wind turbines be sited five kilometres or more from the banks of the four Great Lakes that lie within Ontario's boundaries. But some developers have already made significant investments to explore project locations within the exclusion zone, says Robert Hornung, president of the Canadian Wind Energy Association (CANWEA). And they thought they were doing it with the blessing of the provincial government, which gave them access to the sites in the first place.

"The Ministry of Natural Resources has been leasing a lot of land inside five kilometres, which is why people have been looking at building there," says Hornung. "There appears to be some disconnect between the new setback being proposed and past leasing practices."

The draft regulation was a shock to the utility Toronto Hydro, which has been working on an offshore plan in Lake Ontario for five years. "We had not been informed that this kind of decision was going to be announced and we weren't consulted in advance," says Joyce McLean, Toronto Hydro's director of strategic issues.

The city-owned distribution utility spent about C$1 million installing an anemometer approximately 1.1 kilometres off the lake's north shore. It plans to spend the next two years assessing the wind resource in the area to determine the feasibility of building a 200MW project on a stretch of lake bed some 25 kilometres long and between two and four kilometres offshore. "We went through a Crown land process to receive that piece of property as a study area and potential site for a wind farm," says McLean of the land, which is held by the government on behalf of the monarchy.

Lost advantage

The utility chose the site because of a natural shelf that runs about 20 metres below the surface of the water. Off the edge of the shelf, at about four kilometres out into the lake, there is a sharp drop in water depth that would make turbine platform installations more difficult and expensive.

The draft regulations are open to public comment until August 24 and the environment ministry is planning to hold public and industry consultation sessions starting in the autumn. Toronto Hydro is still working out the specifics of its response, says McLean, but it does plan to actively participate in the process. "It appears there hasn't been a great deal of communication and co-ordination among the various ministries in Ontario to ensure that these kinds of investments get protected," she says. "So we'll be making those comments and many others."

CANWEA is also in the process of reviewing the proposal in detail to determine what changes it would like to see made, says Hornung. "It would be our objective that those companies that have been early leaders in this area will not in the end be penalised for it," he says. "We want to find some way they can either build on the work that they've done or proceed with work that they've done."

The province took an early lead with respect to wind energy development in the Great Lakes when it implemented a feed-in tariff of C$0.19/kWh for the output of offshore projects, says Hornung. But it can only maintain that lead if companies feel confident in the stability of the policy that underpins their investment, he says, adding: "I think that's the real challenge."

Kate Jordan, the co-ordinator of media relations for Ontario's environment ministry, says that the government settled on five kilometres for a number of reasons. "It was based on safety considerations, primarily for drinking water intakes near the shoreline and also for the more sensitive ecosystems near the shoreline," she explains. Noise, shipping traffic, and the safety of recreational boaters and swimmers were other factors, she says.

The province also looked at the setbacks being considered by other jurisdictions bordering the Great Lakes. Although none have yet been enshrined in law, says Jordan, New York is considering 3.6 kilometres, while Ohio and Michigan have proposed 4.8 kilometres and 9.6 kilometres, respectively.

"We believe our regulation is on par with other jurisdictions," she says. "But it is a proposal at this stage and that's why we've gone out for public consultation. We do want to hear what people have to say."

In addition to the turbine setback, the draft regulation outlines the environmental approval requirements being considered for offshore wind projects. "That is an area that has been unclear," says Horning. "I think it's a positive step to actually start laying that out."

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