Proposed solar farm raises ire of neighbours
Martha Tanner Frontenac
Friday, March 9, 2012 1:57:13 EST PM
Samsung Renewable Energy is feeling the heat from neighbours of its proposed 325-hectare solar farm in the Unity Road area of Kingston.
At a public meeting of the city's Rural Advisory Committee, held February 28 at the Invista Centre, the frustration felt by members of the Unity Road Ratepayers Association boiled over. "We're sick and tired of this being rammed down our throats," said Mike Sewell, a spokesperson for the association. Sewell was quick to point out that he and his neighbours are not against solar energy. "We're not against green energy, we're not pro coal, we're certainly not NIMBYs," he said. "We are opposed to the industrialization of our rural communities, the total devastation." Sewell, who noted that he lives as sustainably as possible, growing his own vegetables and cutting his own wood, said that this quiet rural community, dotted with homes and farms, was not the place for a massive solar factory. "This is what it's going to look like during the construction phase," he said, showing slides of flooded fields, and heavy dump trucks lurching through deep mud-clotted ruts. "We live on a thin crust of rock. I'm concerned about my well water." Sewell also noted that there are no minimum setbacks required for solar projects. "They can put it right against your fence if they want to." The 100 MW Sol-luce Kingston Solar PV Energy Project is part of the $7-billion Green Energy Investment Agreement signed by the Ontario government and a consortium formed by Samsung C&T and the Korea Electric Power Energy Company in January 2010.
As part of the agreement, the consortium will build and operate a series of wind and solar power clusters throughout the province over the next 20 years with a combined power-generating capacity of 2.5GW, or four per cent of Ontario's total electricity consumption. Samsung has already signed leasing agreements with over 1,000 farmers and landowners, including some in Kingston and neighbouring Loyalist Township for the Sol-luce Project.
At the meeting, which drew about 50 residents, Sonya Bolton, a senior policy planner with the city, explained that municipalities have a limited role to play in the approval of renewable energy projects. Under the Green Energy Act passed in 2009, renewable energy projects are exempt from Planning Act approvals and are instead subject to a provincial-led approval process. The Green Energy Act was intended, in part, to remove barriers to renewable energy projects. A report on renewable energy projects prepared for council by Cynthia Beach, Commissioner of Sustainability and Growth, notes that "as renewable energy projects are exempt from most land use planning instruments under the Planning Act, including zoning by-laws, municipalities cannot use their broad powers to restrict the use of land for such projects." Municipalities do have powers to ensure the health and safety of local communities, writes Beach, "as long as they do not act to frustrate the purpose of any provincial act". The city can comment on such projects and, as part of this process, directed the Rural Advisory Committee to meet with affected residents to gather recommendations on landscaping and setbacks of solar projects. At the meeting, residents expressed their concerns about the appearance of the solar project and recommended that a naturalized berm be erected.
They also wanted assurances that their wells and property values would not be affected, that there be a minimum setback of 550 metres, and that the land would be restored if the project is decommissioned in 20 years.
Sewell submitted a comprehensive 12-page draft "ratepayers guide to setbacks and land use provisions" with nearly 100 recommendations in areas such as engaging stakeholders and addressing concerns regarding heritage and archaeological resources, water sources, natural resources and wildlife, air quality, noise, public safety and emergency planning, land use and its impact on residents, visual landscape, real estate and financial impact, and decommissioning.
The residents at the meeting also strongly recommended that the municipality petition the province to restore its powers for approval of renewable energy projects under the Planning Act.
"We have very little power, but we are going to try on your behalf," promised committee chair George Sutherland.
Invited by the Rural Advisory Committee to attend the public meeting as observers, officials from Samsung initially declined to speak. However, at the end of the meeting, Simon Kim, project manager for Samsung Renewable Energy, rose to speak.
Kim said that the various studies being undertaken would take a year or more to complete, but once they were, "more than 80 per cent of your concerns will be mitigated".
Kim promised that Samsung would hold meetings in the interim, probably at the end of March or in early April, to address residents' concerns.