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Is McGuinty's green-energy answer just blowin' in the wind?

In court, Dalton McGuinty's government is defending its authority to put up wind turbines around Ontario.

At Queen's Park, it's under pressure to release financial details of its controversial multibillion-dollar agreement with South Korea's Samsung Group to develop wind and solar power.

And across the province, the green-energy strategy that was supposed to be a feel-good centrepiece of Mr. McGuinty's second term is getting a decidedly mixed reaction.

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Provincial Liberals still contend it will be a positive for them in next fall's election. But if they could go back in time, they'd probably do a few things differently:

1. Make the case

There appeared to be an assumption that the benefits of spending billions of dollars harnessing wind and solar - job creation and sustainable power - were self-evident. This was particularly apparent in George Smitherman, the former energy minister who embraced alternative power with missionary zeal.

As a result, the Liberals didn't condition the public for their Green Energy Act as much as they could have. And they seemed caught off guard by the ensuing backlash, caused by rising energy bills and what would be pejoratively referred to as NIMBYism.

2. Move more slowly

The Green Energy Act was largely uncharted territory, so it was inevitable some adjustments would have to be made along the way. But there was a franticness that contributed to mistakes.

Had the legislation been written more tightly, more dubious applicants for lucrative energy contracts might have been ruled out sooner. Instead, some were allowed to proceed further than they should have, with bad planning and poor communications creating lingering unease in affected communities.

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Meanwhile, the premium paid for placing solar panels on rural properties was initially set at a jaw-dropping 80.2 cents per kilowatt hour. Recognizing too many farmers were taking them up on it, the Liberals tried last summer to lower it to 58.8 cents - still about four times higher than what's paid for wind energy. But after an outcry, the government compromised on a rate of 64.2 cents and grandfathered the original rate for anyone who had already submitted a bid.

3. Don't make victims of municipalities

The most contentious aspect of the GEA removes municipalities from the process of deciding where wind turbines go up. Government and industry insiders argue that was actually welcomed by municipal politicians, who are absolved of responsibility. But those politicians have not conveyed that impression publicly.

To some extent, the Liberals needed to expedite the process. But by appearing uninterested in the views of local governments, they encouraged opposition in places it might not otherwise have existed.

4. Don't encourage conspiracy theories

The rationale behind the Samsung agreement remains a mystery. The government undercut its own "feed-in-tariff" program, which hands out relatively small contracts to domestic companies, by signing a very large one with a foreign company. That created resentment within the industry, partly because it used up a chunk of available transmission capacity.

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Most likely, Mr. Smitherman wanted a big deliverable before he left provincial politics. But why the Premier's office went ahead with it, amid objections from cabinet, has never been fully explained. And the government's reluctance to release the terms of the agreement has fuelled speculation about what kind of sweetheart deal it offered.

5. Put the costs in perspective

Liberals grumble about the misconception that green energy has been behind all the spikes in energy prices in recent years. In reality, many of those were caused by upgrades to long-neglected infrastructure. But until recently, the government didn't properly explain that.

A little honesty about what green energy would cost also might have helped. Mr. Smitherman insisted the GEA would increase the average bill by only 1 per cent annually - a forecast ridiculed when the government conceded late last year that green energy would account for the bulk of a projected 46-per-cent increase in prices (offset by a 10-per-cent rebate) over the next five years.

Brad Duguid, the current energy minister, is now making a noble effort to justify cost increases in layman's terms. But he needn't be facing quite so much of an uphill battle.

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Political Feature Writer

Adam Radwanski is The Globe and Mail's political feature writer. More

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