MARK CARDWELL, The Gazette, May 7, 2008
The smallest of the 15 wind-farm bids accepted by Hydro-Québec on Monday could end up generating more political current than all of the other projects combined.
A French-backed energy consortium is proposing to build 37 wind towers on a mountain near Lac-au-Sable, a popular fishing, hunting and hiking spot for locals and tourists next to one of Quebec’s most popular provincial parks in the picturesque Charlevoix region east of Quebec City.
“No one here is in favour of it,” said Charles Roberge, who is president of the UNESCO-recognized Charlevoix Biosphere Reserve and head of a regional coalition against the Lac-au-Sable project.
The opposition includes everyone from the local chamber of commerce and the Tourisme Québec office to Nature Québec and the local regional government.
The Charlevoix reaction is an example of the social and political pitfalls that await the Quebec government as it pushes into the unchartered field of sustainable economic activity and energy development.
“Nearly everyone in Quebec is for green energy like wind power,” said Jean-Louis Chaumel, an economist at the Université du Québec à Rimouski and co-founder of the Wind Energy Group, an international body of French-language professors and graduate students that studies the impact of wind farms.
“But when you put wind parks in areas that are sensitive (because of) high population densities or natural beauty, you have the potential for multiple sources of social activism against them.”
Roberge puts it more bluntly: “Basically, it’s a stupid idea.
“We’re all for sustainable development,” he said. “But from what we’ve seen and heard, we’ll only be getting the bad sides of the green energy they hope to produce here.”
A primary concern is the environmental and aesthetic impacts the wind farm will have on a region that is famous for its breathtaking views of the St. Lawrence and the Laurentians, but Roberge and others are also angry about the process that led to Monday’s announcement.
“(The Quebec Liberal government) is making the same mistakes it did with Sûroit and Mont Orford, in that they are thrusting this thing on people too quickly,” he said, referring to government-sponsored projects that were stopped after the public reacted against them.
“We don’t know why, for example, this project is being given to a private company instead of Hydro-Québec. And if it has to be private, why isn’t a local company involved?”
Proposed to Hydro-Québec by St-Laurent Énergies, a Montreal-based consortium that is comprised of Hydromega Services, RES Canada and EDF Energies Nouvelles, which is a subsidiary of France’s EDF, the Lac-au-Sable or “Charlevoix-Est” wind farm is expected to generate 74 megawatts of wind power if and when it is completed by 2015.
That represents about 3.6 per cent of the total of 2,004 megawatts the 15 projects are expected to generate, and 7.7 per cent of the 954 megawatts allotted to St-Laurent Énergies, which emerged as the big bid winner on Monday.
According to the consortium’s project manager, Stéphane Boyer, more than half of the $2 billion needed to build the five sites will be spent in Quebec, including the manufacture of blades, towers and power converters.
He said the Lac-au-Sable site, located in a provincially-owned, 368-square-kilometre “Controlled Exploitation Zone,” is the perfect location for a wind farm.
“When you look at the map (and) all the criteria we look at — wind, accessibility to (existing Hydro-Québec power lines and grid), remoteness from people, the presence of intense forestry operations — it is an excellent place to produce electricity at a competitive cost,” he said.
Despite the consortium’s arguments, Roberge said locals are particularly worried that the wind farms will be visible from the Parc des Hautes-Gorges, a provincial park 12 kilometres away that attracts 100,000 people a year.
“In return we get what, a few temporary jobs?” he asked. “The profits all go elsewhere. There are very few economic benefits for our region.”
For his part, Boyer said consortium officials were “surprised and disappointed” by the Charlevoix coalition’s public attacks against their project.
“But I think we can sit down with and discuss their concerns, find some compromises,” he added. “I mean, we’ve got until 2015, so there’s lots of time.”
Compromise, suggested Chaumel, is indeed the key.
“The best way to go is to get social acceptance for a project beforehand,” he said, adding that the Quebec government has “put the cart before the horse” with the Charlevoix project.
“It’s clear there is no expertise yet in knowing how to arrange pertinent agreements in terms of social acceptance,” he said.
Part of the problem, he said, has been the Quebec government’s fear of getting in bed with promoters who can’t deliver what they promise — a fear that might have been partly allayed with the granting of several projects backed by a giant like ENF.
“The Quebec government has dramatically reduced the number of promoters it was dealing with (and) was clearly disappointed with,” said Chaumel, referring to a number of Quebec companies that failed to win contracts. “They wanted to work with companies that had solid experience and financing and could deliver projects in a pertinent, fast and clean manner. “They’ve done that by accepting baskets of projects from the best developers,” he added. “Now it’s up to those promoters, like the ones in Charlevoix, to sit down with the locals and figure things out (by) explaining things and maybe sharing benefits.
Thank you National Wind Watch for this post!