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David Swan, the Spiddle Hill wind farm project manager. ‘I’m determined to make money on it. People have put their retirement funds into it, and I want their RRSPs to be successful.’ (Richard Blackwell/The Globe and Mail)
David Swan, the Spiddle Hill wind farm project manager. ‘I’m determined to make money on it. People have put their retirement funds into it, and I want their RRSPs to be successful.’ (Richard Blackwell/The Globe and Mail)

energy

One small town wind farm, 286 owners Add to ...

David Swan carefully manoeuvres his electric Nissan Leaf up the twisty dirt road that leads to the peak of Spiddle Hill, one of the gentle mountains that dot the region around Tatamagouche in northern Nova Scotia.

At the top, he steps out to survey three wind turbines – one big one and two smaller ones. A few hundred metres away a giant pit in the ground awaits the pouring of a massive amount of cement to form a pad that will support a fourth turbine, to be erected later this summer.

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This little wind farm, about 15 km from Tatamagouche, is just one of dozens in Nova Scotia, hundreds in Canada, and thousands around the world. But it is also highly unusual in that it is owned by 286 people – most of whom live nearby – who have joined together to finance the project, and who will eventually reap dividends from the power it produces. Carpenters, school teachers, farmers and bank employees have invested an average of about $9,000 each, raising more than $2.6-million.

Mr. Swan, an engineer who was born in the Tatamagouche area but who spent much of his career in the United States, spearheaded the effort to build the turbines with local financing. He is also promoting the local use of electric vehicles – he owns several himself and has helped to get four charging stations installed in the tiny community.

The Tatamagouche model of community ownership of a wind project is unusual in Canada, where the vast majority of wind farms are owned by large corporations such as TransAlta Corp. and Enbridge Inc. But it may point the way for an industry that needs more success in getting local residents on side, in order to overcome opposition and make sure that those who live nearby have a stake – and a say – in the way wind farms are built.

Mr. Swan’s success in getting this project to fruition was a result of a fortunate confluence of events. He had returned to Tatamagouche in the early 2000s to set up a consulting firm, after years away working in Texas and California, and wanted to do something that would help diversify the local economy and make a positive environmental impact.

Nova Scotia had in place an investment scheme that provided tax credits to people investing in community economic development corporations – essentially co-ops set up to run local projects. Mr. Swan helped establish Colchester-Cumberland Wind Field Inc. in 2006 under that model, and began the process of gathering investment from his neighbours and friends. The group found a windy location on nearby Spiddle Hill, negotiated a contract to sell power to the province, and began generating electricity from its first 800 kilowatt turbine by 2011.

Two smaller 50 kw turbines were installed in 2012, and another large 800 kw one will be in place in the next few months. The latter three have “feed-in-tariff” contracts to sell power to the province at high rates, under a program designed to encourage small energy projects as part of Nova Scotia’s efforts to shift away from a reliance on electricity generated from coal.

When the fourth turbine is up and running, on windy days the project will generate enough power for roughly half of Tatamagouche’s base electricity consumption.

For Mr. Swan, it is important that CCWF functions as a business. By 2016, the company is planning to begin paying out dividends based on its revenue from electricity sales, so shareholders who have invested their retirement funds will start getting some returns. “I’m determined to make money on it,” Mr. Swan said. “People have put their retirement funds into it, and I want their RRSPs to be successful.”

While many shareholders will be thrilled to see the returns begin to flow, that’s not why they bought in to the project.

“I put money in because it just seemed like a good way to help Tatamagouch be self-sufficient [in electricity],” said Sara Bonnyman, a potter who lives just outside the town. It gives people “a warm and fuzzy feeling” to know they have a stake in a project that is actually generating some of the town’s power, she said.

Shelley Byers, an assistant manager at the local grocery store, said she became a shareholder because the project was a way to sustainably boost the local economy. “It made perfect sense, and because it is community owned, everybody has a stake in it, everybody is proud. When you drive by that hill, you look up and say: ‘I’ve got a piece of that turbine’.”

Not everyone is onside. There has been opposition from some local residents, particularly those who live near the turbines.

Wayne Edgar, whose house is about 2.5 km from the project, said attempts to get the turbines placed farther from the nearest residences (which are less than a kilometre away) were rebuffed by the co-op. Noise from the turbines can be “very invasive,” to those nearby, he said.

Mr. Edgar, who supports wind power in general, says that the locally-owned co-op has been more responsive to concerns than a utility or corporation might have been.

However, when it came to the placement of the turbines, the co-op acted very much like a corporate owner in wanting to generate the most power possible, he said. "It is the same narrative that you'd hear from Emera or Nova Scotia Power or whatever: they are concerned about maximizing their returns for their investors, and it is about ensuring that investors' interests are safeguarded."

 

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