Fast track growth feeds public concern

A surge in project proposals from developers preparing bids in Hydro-Quebec's call for 2000 MW of wind power is feeding a growing debate about the pace and density of wind power's growth in two of the province's windiest regions, the Gaspésie peninsula and the neighbouring Bas-Saint-Laurent region. The prospect of a potential doubling of volume now has residents seriously worried, with freezes and restrictions on development resulting.

With Quebec's government-owned utility concentrating thousands of megawatt of wind development in just two regions, the wind industry finds itself working hard to allay a rising groundswell of public concern. Giving municipalities the opportunity to be partners rather than mere spectators could do much to smooth the way

A surge in project proposals from developers preparing bids in Hydro-Quebec's call for 2000 MW of wind power is feeding a growing debate about the pace and density of wind power's growth in two of the province's windiest regions, the Gaspésie peninsula and the neighbouring Bas-Saint-Laurent region. Already the government owned utility has nearly 1500 MW of wind either operating or under contract to come online over the next six years in the two areas. The prospect of a potential doubling of that volume now has residents seriously worried, with freezes and restrictions on development resulting.

A 2004 study found the two areas have some of the best and most accessible wind resources in Quebec. With new power purchase agreements now up for grabs, they have attracted the attention of a host of project developers. A recent survey found that in the Bas-Saint-Laurent alone, which stretches 320 kilometres along the south shore of the Saint Lawrence River and varies in width from 50-100 kilometres, nearly 2000 MW of projects are either operating, under construction or in the planning stages.

The situation is making some communities nervous, says Jean-Louis Chaumel, director of the wind energy group at the University of Quebec at Rimouski, whose team conducted the survey. He points to the villages of Saint-Ulric and Saint-Léandre, where a movement known as Éole-Prudence has started a petition calling for minimum setbacks of 750 metres from dwellings. The villages were supportive of wind when Axor's Le Nordais project was built there in the late 1990s. But now two more major projects, including an expansion of Le Nordais, are planned for their territory, and another is under construction nearby. "It is probably not astonishing to see how in this context you have the emergence of this kind of movement of opposition against too-intensive wind farm development," says Chaumel.

Slow down

The concern is manifesting itself in other ways as well. The regional tourist association of the Gaspésie -- a 223 square kilometre peninsula jutting 20 kilometres into the Gulf of Saint Lawrence -- recently requested a moratorium on wind power development on the peninsula until a plan is in place to minimise the impact of turbines on its landscapes. The trade union that represents Hydro-Quebec workers, already campaigning to nationalise Quebec's wind industry, has teamed up with agricultural producers in the Bas-Saint-Laurent to call for a "vast public consultation" on how wind power should be developed in the region. Claude Guimond, president of the Union des Producteurs Agricoles, says that while his members are not opposed to wind energy development, they are concerned things are moving too quickly. "It is the energy of future, but not to the detriment of communities and of their framework of life."

The province's Bureau d'aud-iences publiques sur l'environnement (BAPE), which has held recent hearings into a number of projects, has heard requests for a study of the cumulative effects of wind power expansion. Some municipalities have placed a freeze on projects until they work out the rules under which developers must work, while others have already placed varying levels of restrictions on where wind turbines can go.

One very public dispute between Toronto-based SkyPower Corporation and the regional municipality of Rivière-du-Loup over turbine placement prompted energy minister Pierre Corbeil to intervene to get the two sides talking. The debate has also turned political, with Quebec's main opposition party accusing the Liberal government of fostering the "anarchistic development" of the market.

Unwarranted fear

For Sean Whittaker, director of policy and technical affairs for the Canadian Wind Energy Association (CanWEA), the reality is quite different. "It is typical that in a region with really good wind that you are going to see a lot of proposed projects. It is important for people to understand that not all those projects will be developed and that the projects that are developed will have to bid into and win in Hydro-Quebec's request for proposals, which requires collaboration with communities and municipalities," he says. "In that respect, the development of wind in Quebec is anything but anarchistic."

Getting that message out to the public is one of the challenges facing the industry, says Whittaker. So too is getting people better information on commonly raised questions about things like noise, impact on birds, and even whether the transport of large components will damage local roads. "Unfortunately, a lot of what is circulating now is not necessarily correct," says Whittaker.

CanWEA is working on several initiatives to reach out to those with concerns, including co-sponsoring a conference this month on municipalities and wind power development. Another of the sponsors is the Union of Municipalities of Quebec, whose members, says the union's Gaetan Ruest, are not content to be "spectators" as the industry grows. "The municipalities must be active partners, and even significant investors. It is the only way of allowing our citizens, taxpayers, to obtain the real repercussions of this development," he says.


The degree to which communities benefit financially from projects in their jurisdictions has always been an important element of the debate over wind development in Quebec and, believes Chaumel, is part of the frustration some are feeling now. Both the government and the utility have tried to respond. Hydro-Quebec's 2000 MW request for proposals (RFP) encourages equity participation in projects by municipalities and First Nations by making it part of the bid evaluation criteria; several have already announced partnerships with project developers. The government's recently released energy strategy also promises to pursue 250 MW of smaller scale, community-based projects. Although the terms of that purchase have not been released, a number of projects are already in the planning stages.

The industry, says Whittaker, believes either avenue can provide municipalities with a role, depending on their appetite for financial risk. "One of the key messages that we really want to get out is that there are different kinds of projects," he says. "There is no one size fits all. There are different models for different circumstances. But the most important element is having a good dialogue among various players. That includes the wind industry. It includes municipalities. It includes community groups, landowners, academics and utilities. That is what we are trying to encourage."

Neither Whittaker nor Chaumel believe the current debate will hinder development of the 990 MW of projects selected in Hydro-Quebec's first RFP for wind power in 2004. "I am not at all pessimistic regarding the projects that already have contracts signed. The local communities, the government and the developers are dedicated to finding solutions, for sure," says Chaumel.

Cartier Energy, the developer of three-quarters of those projects, has started construction on two, and so far, says chairman Gilles Lefrancois, things have gone smoothly. "The relationship with the landowners is very good. We have constant communication with them and if there are problems, we solve them," he says.

The company is going before the BAPE this month to seek approval of its 109.5 MW Carleton project, which is scheduled to come online in 2008. The only opposition that project has faced, he says, comes from a few residents concerned about the placement of a handful of turbines. In fact, the projects that seem to be running into the most opposition in Quebec were contracted outside the structure of the RFP process, a practice Hydro-Quebec has since stopped.

Adjustment process

Overall, Chaumel believes that both the government and the population are largely supportive of wind development and are open to going beyond Quebec's current target of 4000 MW by 2015. What the current debate could do, he says, is prompt the government to put greater emphasis on community-based projects and encourage developers to increasingly look to other parts of the province to site projects. "This is more an adjustment process in the Quebec way to develop wind energy rather than a serious brake," he says.

What is also clear from the discussion, adds Whittaker, is that Quebecers have a very sophisticated understanding of how wind power fits into the big picture. "In Quebec, as in all jurisdictions that are seeing rapid development of wind in a relatively short period of time, there is a tremendous amount of learning by doing," he says. "I think that in Quebec, through this intense development and high level dialogue on wind, they are learning faster than many other areas."

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