A wealthy lakeside community in Quebec is being torn apart by a plan for a wind farm atop the green mountains that form its spectacular backdrop. The big power company behind the project is doing all it can to create fear and dissent in the community, including offering bribes to residents who support the plan, and threatening those who don’t with a wind turbine right on their property line.
Once-friendly neighbours no longer greet each other, rip down posters on manicured lawns and damage each others’ property. For-sale signs have sprouted. And provincial police have become a familiar presence at stormy municipal council meetings in this local beauty spot.
At the center of the dispute are 50 white turbines, to rise 138 metres (450 feet) above the Appalachian foothills – four and a half times the height of the cross on Mount Royal – will disfigure the landscape, disrupt wildlife, intrude on the peaceful silence and lower real-estate values.
Supporters, including the mayor, farmers and wood-lot owners, welcome the $420-million investment in a region whose mainstays are agriculture and the cottagers who flock to Lake William each summer.
“The wind farm is costing us nothing,” says Donald Langlois, mayor of the village of 2,300 half an hour east of Victoriaville. He pointed out the project will bring $190,000 a year into the coffers of the regional municipality of L’Érable. “When you don’t invest anything and it brings in revenue, that’s good. It’s found money.”
But critics dispute whether the windfall is worth it – especially to the majority of residents who, unlike 25 landowners who stand to collect $8,000 a year per windmill, won’t receive compensation for enduring the sight and swish-swish of the towering turbines.
The debate has poisoned relations in the normally peaceful community, where pro-wind landowners plan to close a popular cross-country ski trail and opponents are branded as outsiders.
“We’ve been here for 35 years, but from one day to the next, we’ve become the newcomers,” says Françoise Aubre, a music teacher who opposes the project.
“This has divided us. You don’t look at your neighbours the same way any more.”
Environmentalists have hailed Quebec’s ambitious commitment to wind power, which does not generate air or water emissions, or deplete natural resources like coal, oil or gas.
Last year, Premier Jean Charest announced contracts to build 15 wind farms totalling 2,000 megawatts over the next six years – enough to supply about 500,000 homes. Another eight wind farms in the Gaspé received previous approval.
Ironically the local MP is Minister of Public Works and Member of Parliament for Mégantic–L’Érable, Christian Paradis. As the regional minister for Quebec, Christian is responsible for many important projects underway in the province. Those include the modernization of the Port of Trois-Rivières, the renovation of the Champlain Bridge in Montreal, and renovations to the Salle Dussault and the water supply system here in Thetford.
The new projects will consolidate Quebec’s role as “a world power in renewable energy,” Charest said. By 2015, 10 per cent of the province’s total electricity capacity will come from wind. (However, wind turbines only operate at about one-third of capacity, so wind will actually represent three to four per cent of the electricity produced.)
But Quebec’s big leap into green energy is running into turbulence.
As rural communities tussle over wind projects, a darker side of this green energy is emerging. Local residents are kept in the dark until landowners and municipalities have committed to wind projects, say critics.
“He had a contract in his hand,” says Aubre of a wind-company representative who knocked on her door. “He said, ‘They will give you $500 per wind turbine if you sign.’
“When I refused, he said: ‘They will put wind turbines on your property line and you won’t have the cheque.'”
Critics also charge wind projects offer few benefits to local communities once the initial construction phase is over. Enerfin, a Spanish company developing the L’Érable wind farm, projects the park will create 500 construction jobs and 25 permanent jobs once the project becomes operational in 2011.
Simon Jean-Yelle, a project manager for Enerfin, scoffed at the suggestion that some landowners feel vulnerable when approached in their homes. “We never forced anyone to sign,” he says. “There was a lot of interest in the wind farm, both from the municipality and among the landowners.”
Jean-Yelle also defended a recent $17,000 trip to Brazil by Langlois and six other mayors and local officials at the invitation of Enerfin, which operates a wind farm there. Langlois later said the regional municipality will reimburse the wind developer out of a $450,000 fund the company has provided to cover expenses.
Opponents of wind farms are often tarred as elitist NIMBYs who favour wind energy in principle, but not when it interferes with their million-dollar view. However, Jean-Claude Simard, a professor of philosophy and the history of science at the CÉGEP de Rimouski and the Université du Québec à Rimouski, says the debate across rural Quebec over wind power raises much deeper issues.
“What we’re seeing is the distress of people who are powerless before a huge machine,” says Simard.
“The problem, in my view, is the model we have chosen for wind development. Instead of encouraging local development, we have entrusted projects to international companies who come here to exploit these resources.
“They pay minimal benefits to the regions and they divide local populations. They make deals with municipal leaders, who often find themselves in conflict of interest.”
Christian Simard (no relation), executive director of the environmental organization Nature Québec, is a long-time advocate of wind energy. But the “psychodramas” unfolding in rural regions over wind farms show the process is flawed, he says.
“Everything is decided in secret. Local residents are left to their own devices, to cope as best they can.
“It goes completely against the spirit of the law on sustainable development, which requires that citizens must be consulted.”
Such objections were uppermost this week when 500 people packed hearings in Thetford Mines by the Bureau des audiences publiques sur l’environnement on a 78-turbine wind project in Kinnear’s Mills, a nearby village classified as a provincial historic site for its 19th-century architecture and picturesque setting.
Tommy Brière, who owns a forestry company and maple bush in Kinnear’s Mills, was among opponents of the wind farm at the hearing.
“In our little community of 350, people aren’t talking to each other any more,” says Brière, who charged that municipal officials negotiated with the wind developer, 3Ci, without consulting residents.
“All we want is a referendum. We want to know when and where we can have our say.”
But Raynald Paré of Thetford Mines claimed most local residents support the wind farm.
Paré, president of an asbestos-industry support group, was recruited last week as spokesman for a group campaigning in favour of the wind project. At the hearings, members sported badges emblazoned with the slogan: “Dans le vent” (an expression that means trendy).
Paré said his group signed up 2,200 supporters in a matter of days. Interviews by the Quebec City newspaper le Soleil revealed that most come from outside the affected region but Paré insisted: “This is the silent majority.”
Balinese gamelan music floats on the air as Pierre Séguin shows a visitor around the Jardin de vos Rêves, an enchanting botanical garden Séguin and Sonia Mondor, both 60, have spent the last 34 years creating from an abandoned dairy farm.
The couple were among an influx of back-to-the-landers who settled in St. Ferdinand and neighbouring villages in the 1970s.
“We wanted to grow everything organically,” recalls Séguin, a graduate of Montreal’s École des Beaux Arts. “It was about rejecting consumer society. We had friends who actually ripped out the electrical lines, to live off the grid.”
Séguin’s generation of ecological-minded migrants turned the rolling region into one of the most environmentally conscious corners of Quebec, offering organic produce, local cheeses and handicrafts.
You might think these ecological pioneers would welcome the arrival of wind energy. But for Séguin and Mondor, the philosophy behind the industrial wind farm that could soon overlook their garden couldn’t be farther from their notion of sustainable development.
“There was no consultation,” says Séguin, recalling a meeting three years ago to inform local residents about the project.
“All of the locations had already been chosen. The contracts had been signed. The municipality had agreed. Everything was in the bag.”
Séguin said his efforts to engage the wind developer in discussions to improve the project went nowhere.
Enerfin, however, contends that it did alter the project in response to residents’ suggestions, for example, by moving several turbines farther from hibernation sites and routes for bats and placing turbines at least 500 metres from homes instead of 400 metres as originally planned.
Séguin co-founded a group to fight the wind farm, the Regroupement pour le développement durable des Appalaches, after concluding a negotiated solution was not an option.
While most residents on both sides have remained civil, Séguin said he has been threatened. “I’ve been told, ‘If the project doesn’t go ahead, your life will be so hard, you won’t be able to live here any more.'”
The majestic Appalachian scenery beyond his garden comforts and inspires him, he says. “You never get tired of looking at them, even after 35 years,” he said, gazing up at the green mountains.
“This sublime nature has a strength, a power that touches people’s hearts. It’s so important to experience this beauty, this silence, this peace.”
Rural landscapes are often forgotten in the race to harness the wind, says Dominique Lalande, director of Ruralys, a resource centre on rural heritage in La Pocatière, in the Lower St. Lawrence region.
“Landscape has a value, economically, culturally and for tourism,” she says.
“It is also an important source of identity.”
Ruralys has conducted inventories of rural landscapes in areas targeted for wind projects. Its study of Ste. Luce, a picturesque village on the mouth of the St. Lawrence, empowered opposition to a 68-megawatt wind farm to be built there by Kruger Énergie.
“It provided criteria to assess the issue of introducing wind turbines,” Lalande says. Kruger cancelled the project in March after residents voted in a referendum to approve a zoning amendment banning wind turbines within five kilometres of the river.
In Aguanish, a remote village of 7,000 on the Lower North Shore, St. Laurent Énergies, a wind-energy promoter owned by the French utility Électricité de France, withdrew after local officials insisted that a 40-turbine wind farm should not be visible from the village. The project will be relocated to the Lac Mégantic region.
In the Charlevoix region, a grassroots coalition is fighting plans for a 74-megawatt wind farm near a provincial park that is a nesting place for endangered golden eagles.
“The entire community is against it,” says Mathias Dufour, president of the ZEC du Lac au Sable, a hunting and fishing club.
Such battles could be avoided if Quebec focused on developing its most abundant wind resources: those in the North, says Réal Reid, an expert on wind energy and author of L’Éolien: Au cœur de l’incontournable révolution énergétique (Éditions MultiMondes, 2009).
Reid says Northern Quebec – an area he calls the Saudi Arabia of wind energy – offers an untapped energy potential 100 times greater than the province’s total electrical production.
Hydro-Québec has claimed that harvesting those winds would be technically difficult and prohibitively expensive. But Reid disagrees.
“We have the technology. We have the materials. Everything is there to do it,” says Reid, a mechanical engineer, who has been studying wind since the 1970s.
Yet developing that potential would be costly, requiring that Hydro-Québec finance the venture rather than contracting wind development out to private companies as it is doing now, he says.
“The best way is to finance it with a government-owned corporation,” Reid says, since Hydro-Québec’s massive size gives it access to much cheaper financing.
“If you do everything the way it’s being done, Quebecers are losing five cents a kilowatt-hour,” he says.
For Jean-Claude Simard, of the Université du Québec à Rimouski, the debate has missed the central issue: who shall reap the wind?
“The government has avoided the fundamental question: To whom does this resource belong? Does it belong to the community, or to the companies that come to exploit it?” he asks.
“For the government, it seems, it belongs to those who have the means to exploit it.”