Paul MacNeill- Against the Tide

Harnessing the power of wind has won Prince Edward Island much international recognition in the 18 years since the first commercial wind farm came online in North Cape.

But achieving the goal of lessening reliance on fossil fuels is never without some level of controversy, regardless of how noble the intent.

Wind power is one of those issues that virtually all Islanders agree with. We see the benefit. We see the need. We celebrate the goal. But when we step down from that 30,000 foot perch, the production of wind energy is very much a divisive local issue for residents and communities.

The job of developing and selling communities on the benefit falls to the PEI Energy Corporation, a provincial Crown corporation. According to its most recent annual report, its turbines generated a combined 232,000 MWh of renewable electricity, or about 35 per cent of the total wind energy produced on the Island.

The corporation wants to increase this number by expanding the existing farm in East Point by seven massive turbines which, if built, will generate 30 MW of energy.

The proposal has split the community. There are threats of legal action over what appears to be strategically developed bylaws to ensure future windmill developments are not rammed down the community’s throat, as has happened in the past. Councillors have been forced to recuse themselves from public discussion over conflict of interest.

Some blame seasonal residents for driving opposition. It’s a cringeworthy notion. To suggest that all year round residents support a new wind farm and all seasonal residents oppose is a sweeping generalization not supported by fact. It also attempts to create classes of citizens based upon how many generations a person has lived on the Island.

We need to be better than that.

All of PEI benefits from wind power generation, but it is rural communities that house them, more often than not, on some of the most scenic oceanside vistas in the province. It is easy to understand why some see turbines as a blight.

Then there is the money. In its pitch to the local council, the energy corporation holds out the carrot of increased payments to landowners and the community of East Point if it is allowed a bylaw variance enabling it to maximize revenue by changing the location of new turbines.

When you crunch the numbers what is being offered is a pittance for the imposition of helping PEI boast about its transition to clean energy.

The PEI Energy Corporation is a cash cow, generating more than $20 million in revenue and $7 million in profit for the provincial government. It’s pays a paltry four per cent of revenue – or $836,000 – to impacted Island landowners and communities. At $6.1 million, amortization of turbines, a non-cash expense, amounts to 47 per cent of the corporation’s annual costs.

There is something wrong with the equation.

All Islanders benefit from reducing our dependence on fossil fuels. All Islanders benefit from the enhanced global reputation created for PEI by wind energy development. But those most impacted – rural communities and landowners, including those whose vistas are impeded – are offered just enough to make it look substantial, but not enough to make a difference.

If the new East Point development proceeds, landowner compensation will be 2.5 per cent of total revenue, estimated at $9.7 million annually – or a staggering $240 million over the anticipated 25 year life of the 30 MW farm.

Actual payments will depend on whether the community allows the variance requested by the energy corporation, a not so subtle attempt to buy community support with marginally improved terms. A land owner on whose property a turbine is erected will receive $10,000 or $13,000 per year. Adjacent owners within a one turbine height, potentially up to 175 metres, will be paid $4,000 or $5,500 per year. And properties within a four turbine height distance will receive $2,000 or $3,000.

Properties outside this range will receive zippo.

It’s proposed the community of East Point will receive .75 to 1.25 per cent of revenue, equaling $73,000 or $123,000 per year. On top is modest municipal tax revenue of $24,000.

Some will claim these numbers are fair. It’s unlikely they live in a community impacted by turbines. This is a uniquely rural development and when turbines go up, opportunity to develop other businesses, such as tourism, go down. Because of this, individuals and communities should receive a far greater percentage of generated revenue.

In the wonky world of government planning, only a project like this could see communities divided, landowners paid a pittance and the vast majority of profits returned to Charlottetown. The compensation model benefits the provincial government far more than the residents and community of East Point.

If it truly is about people, government needs to flip the equation. And fast.

Paul MacNeill is Publisher of Island Press Limited. He can be contacted at paul@peicanada.com

Publisher

Winner of more than 50 regional, national, international awards for commentary and investigative journalism. Founder of The Georgetown Conference on building sustainable rural communities. Featured in A Good Day’s Work. Talking head for CBC Radio and TV.

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