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Children play in the waters around Bala Falls, where a proposed run-of-river hydro station has sparked heated opposition from locals. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)
Children play in the waters around Bala Falls, where a proposed run-of-river hydro station has sparked heated opposition from locals. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

Green energy project gives cottage country the blues Add to ...

The view from the teal-tinged, bobbing wooden dock at Purk's Place is cottage country - bucolic and conflicted.

To the right, Lake Muskoka, dotted with homesteads and holiday places on tiny islands; to the left, a railway bridge, century-old dam and the whoosh of Bala Falls dropping into Moon River.

And a string of neon-orange warning buoys: Dam ahead - keep away.

But what has residents, businesses and cottagers here on edge is not the existing pair of dams, both dating to the late 19th century. It's a hydroelectric generator to be built metres away from the falls at the centre of town - 4.3 megawatts' worth of Ontario's vaunted goal to become North America's green energy capital.

Residents of Bala, located about two hours drive north of Toronto, say they have nothing against hydro power, but fear the $23-million facility and its construction will destroy the tiny town's main attraction: the falls that lure curious eyeballs and day-tripper cash. Concerned residents and businesses are asking the province to put the project through a more rigorous environmental assessment; the Ministry of Energy has just under 30 days to decide.



Instead of trying to build one big gas facility in Oakville, you're potentially building 100 wind turbine sites, each of which has the potential to turn into a little donnybrook. Energy policy professor Mark Winfield


This is one local battlefield of Ontario's Green Energy Act, whose subsidy program prioritizes small-scale green-energy projects over larger, dirtier ones. In a matter of months, the province has made itself the best place on the continent to make a business case for green energy.

British Columbia's government is pursuing a Clean Energy Act meant to bring in billions for green-energy investment; but at the same time, an offshore wind farm in Hecate Strait near Haida Gwaii was turned down not because of local opposition (residents and first nations groups were extremely supportive) but because it wouldn't be profitable enough. Now Ontario, which has effectively guaranteed green-energy entrepreneurs their money's worth, will host the first offshore wind project in Canada.

And as Hydro-Québec sifts through 44 bids to develop 500 megawatts worth of small-scale wind energy projects across the province, Quebec-based green energy company RSW RER, with the financial help of the federal and provincial governments, is moving forward on a mini-hydro project: A pair of turbines submerged in the St. Lawrence river that will create about a half-megawatt of energy. If this pilot project is successful, the company envisions thousands of these in rivers across Canada.

The irony is these mini-projects set the stage for hundreds of confrontations with small communities that balk at the prospect of a power plant or wind farm upsetting their delicate equilibrium.

"Going to a system which relies on more distributed sources of generation, lots of smaller facilities as opposed to one big one, the worst consequence is you do exacerbate the potential for these social conflicts," said York University renewable energy policy professor Mark Winfield. "Instead of trying to build one big gas facility in Oakville, you're potentially building 100 wind turbine sites, each of which has the potential to turn into a little donnybrook."

Bala Falls's small generator, its proponents say, wouldn't decrease summertime flow on the tourist-magnet Bala Falls; it wouldn't block much waterfront access for bathers, boaters and fishermen. The company has vowed to turn the eight-metre-wide generator building into a lookout point the township of Muskoka Lakes has been meaning to build there for years.

But that hasn't stopped "Save Bala Falls" signs from springing up on lawns and in windows across town. And it hasn't quieted the anxieties of residents of a place whose fewer than 50 main businesses along Highway 169 depend on the caprices of warm summers and genial out-of-towners who stop and spend money on their way somewhere else.

For Matt Purkis, who has been working for his grandfather at Purk's Place, selling bait and renting boats "since I was old enough to count to 12 and pack a dozen worms," the plant's potential effects are much more concrete.

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