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Should we lift the moratorium on offshore wind in the Great Lakes?

For a year now there has been a moratorium on the development of offshore wind projects in the Great Lakes. The Ontario government issued the ban because it said more study was needed to make sure the projects can be developed safety and responsibly, even though such studies were supposedly already done when the previous moratorium was lifted in January 2008. It’s more than likely that the latest ban was politically motivated, which is why a consortium of companies stretching from Kingston to Niagara Region has high hopes of changing the government’s mind.

The consortium, calling itself the Lake Ontario Offshore Network, aims to make Ontario the North American capital of offshore wind development. The group includes Windstream Energy Inc., the only company that holds a feed-in-tariff contract with the Ontario Power Authority to sell power from offshore wind turbines into the province’s electrical grid. It doesn’t matter that Windstream, because of the moratorium, can’t currently develop its project. It hopes that by bringing together an industrial consortium it can dangle thousands of jobs in front of the government and possibly convince the powers that be to reconsider its offshore ban.

The cast that has been assembled for this PR play is impressive. The consortium includes turbine suppliers Siemens Wind Power and Vestas Wind Systems, steel fabricator Walters Inc., steel supplier Essar Steel Algoma Inc. and a number of small and medium-sized companies — Anchor Concrete Products Ltd., Ortech Power, Samuel & Son Limited, Akzo Nobel Coating Ltd. and Bermingham Foundation Solutions, to name a few. In total, 18 companies/organizations large and small have signed on, representing a comprehensive supply chain and about 1,800 jobs that could exist over a five-year period if Windstream’s project ever got the go-ahead.

And what is this project? Windstream, which is based in Burlington, Ontario, is planning to build a 100-turbine, 300-megawatt offshore wind project about five kilometres west of Wolfe Island, which is an island just offshore the city of Kingston, itself about 250 kilometres east of Toronto. My own personal feeling is that it’s not the greatest site for development, if only because it’s not far from the onshore wind farm that’s currently located on Wolfe Island and has been a lightning rod for controversy from the beginning (partly because of the density of wind turbine development there). Windstream is proposing that the government keep its moratorium but allow an exemption for its $1.5 billion Wolfe Island shoals project, on the grounds that it would be a pilot project used as part of studies that would determine if further offshore development is the right step forward.

You’ll recall from an earlier column of mine that the “pilot project” approach is one that I support and proposed last July. Specifically, I wrote, “Maybe we would have been better off to focus initially on a public-private pilot project, one located several kilometres offshore in a carefully selected location; one that could be closely studied and be a launch pad for future economic growth.” I’m happy that Windstream has embraced this approach, and it will be interesting to see how the government responds to this invitation.

But here’s the thing: I’m not convinced this is the “carefully selected location” that would be ideal for a pilot project. I’m also not convinced that a 300-megawatt project could rightly be called a “pilot”. I understand the need to go big. There are simply better economies of scale. But if a pilot was truly what Windstream envisions, it should break up the project into smaller phases, with the initial pilot phase being no larger than 20 or so megawatts (similar in size to the world’s first lake-based wind farm in Lake Vanern, Sweden) with plans to develop larger phases once the pilot has been properly studied and ultimately convinces the Ministry of Environment that offshore wind makes sense for Ontario.

I would also argue that there are much better sites to consider for a pilot, including those once held by Trillium Wind Power before the government wiped the slate clear and unjustly forced all developers without a FIT contract to start from scratch. Trillium, by the way, had also started developing a supply chain consortium before the rug was pulled from under it, resulting in a $2.25 billion lawsuit filed against the Ontario government. One wonders how any company could trust dealing with Queen’s Park these days.

But Windstream is the one that finds itself in the fortunate position of being the only developer with a FIT contract. Whether the piece of paper it holds gives it the edge when it comes to pilot-scale projects, that’s unclear. After all, pilots are given special consideration. Presumably, FIT or not, picking the location of a pilot project should be based on the site, not the developer.

The saga continues…

Tyler Hamilton's picture

Thank Tyler for the Post!

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