Thursday, June 11, 2015

Solar Project Proponents Digging Themselves a Hole in Greater Sudbury

I've just returned from one of the most disastrous public meetings that I've ever attended. Maybe it's number 2 on my list of all-time examples of how not to hold a public meeting. And it's really too bad, too, because the meeting was about a solar energy development proposal in the City of Greater Sudbury – technically 4 separate proposals, but most people were really there just to talk about two of them. And for the most part, in my opinion, all 4 proposals seem like they may be pretty good, and will go along way to help make the City the solar capital of Northern Ontario.

That's the blogpost that I wanted to write – that Toronto-area renewable energy company SkyPower has come to town with proposals which – along with an already established solar project near Capreol – will make our community a leader in solar energy production. The envy of the Province. I believe that can still happen if decisions are ultimately made based on facts and evidence, rather than on emotion and perception. But after tonight's public-relations disaster, SkyPower is going to have its work cut out for it.

A Bizarre Process

Let me back up a moment. In fairness to SkyPower, this isn't all their fault – just mostly. The assessment process in Ontario for renewable energy projects, as laid out by the Province, has to take some of the blame. And not just because these land uses aren't approved at the municipal level, but rather by the Province – it's more bizarre than just that, even though the impacts on people are clearly local in nature.

Going in to tonight's meeting, I had a few questions about the proposals – all of which were answered by representatives of SkyPower. Unfortunately, many of those answers were quite off-putting. For example, I wanted to know where I could find the technical studies produced which would assess natural heritage impacts. Well – there haven't been any technical studies prepared at this point, beyond “paper-based” studies, which amount to looking at databases such as the Province's Natural Heritage Information Centre – which has some great data about natural heritage features, if the land in question is located in Southern Ontario. Data for the north? Not so much.

So no natural heritage site assessment has been conducted at this time. That's...far from ideal, given that social media has been alive over the past week with reports of Blanding's turtles and whipporwills being spotted on at least one of the sites. Both of those species have been designated “at risk” in Ontario. A friendly, if harried, SkyPower rep confirmed that completing an on-site assessment was part of the process, and that if sensitive habitat was found to be on site, the company would avoid disturbing it.

However, no site assessment will be undertaken prior to the IESO authorizing the contract for the project.

What? Approval in absence of technical data to demonstrate the site's feasibility? Seriously?

Yes, that's the process. And it's not just natural heritage values we're talking about here in terms of features lacking on-site assessments. It's noise (not from the panels, but from the transformer stations, which tend to hum). It's archaeology. It's stormwater. All of these technical issues will remain unanswered until the IESO gives SkyPower the approval to enter into a contract.

To me, that just seems so very bizarre. What if it turns out that there are threatened species on some or all of the sites, and ultimately the presence of those species sterilizes the site(s) from being developed for solar energy? Contracts will have been signed, approvals given, but the developer won't be able to deliver. Now I'm sure that there's some sort of protection for the developer here should things fall apart after approvals is given by the IESO. That's not really my concern with the process.


What I am concerned about is that SkyPower has to go out to the public at this time, before technical studies to answer the public's questions about development impacts are prepared. That's bad enough. We saw tonight how well that worked out – company reps couldn't answer many of the questions put to them with regards to the presence of species at risk, noise and surface and groundwater management. Their homework is incomplete, yet they are asking the public to give them a grade.

It gets worse. As part of the process, SkyPower will be going to our municipal Council near the end of the summer, asking for the City's endorsement of the project. Only after Council expresses its views will SkyPower go to the IESO. So, SkyPower will be asking our Council to make a decision regarding whether it should support the project in absence of the developer having demonstrated the project's suitability for the sites in question.

We saw how well that's worked out for the motorcross park developer here in the Valley just recently – the one who refused to undertake a noise mitigation study to demonstrate how noise impacts would be minimized. At least that developer had undertaken one relevant technical study before going to Council for its approval. SkyPower won't have undertaken any.

Of course, unlike the motorcross park, which was a request to amend municipal zoning, these proposals aren't going to be approved by the City. They'll be approved by the Province. The City gets to have its say, but it's within the realm of possibility that should our Council oppose any or all of these projects, the Province could still give them the go-ahead.

So, that's the process. And it's a real problem. You can thank the Ontario Liberal government for crafting this truly bizarre assessment process which puts approvals ahead of feasibility assessments. It's not SkyPower's fault.

A Public Relations Disaster

What is, however, SkyPower's fault is the unmitigated disaster that tonight's meeting turned out to be. When I arrived 15 minutes after the start of the meeting, angry residents were lined up out the doors of the library. I waited about 20 minutes just to get into the tiny meeting space SkyPower chose to hold its public meeting in. A few people didn't make it as far as I did – they saw the line-up, and they left. Having people leave before they get a chance to ask questions or voice their opinion isn't something that should ever happen at a public meeting.

Citizens lined up outside of the Valley East Public Library 15 minutes after the start of SkyPower's "public meeting"
When I finally did make it inside, the place was literally mobbed. A small number of SkyPower staff were trying to register people, distribute and take back survey information, and answer questions from the public. But not from the media.

Oh yes, the media was out in full force. And why wouldn't they be? These projects have generated a lot of interest on social media sites, especially Facebook. Many in the Valley are very upset about the proposals, for a variety of reasons – some legit, some not so much, in my opinion. Given that the projects have been subject to a number of mainstream media articles already, it stands to reason that the media would be out tonight – to talk to the angry residents, and to maybe to interview SkyPower staff in the name of “balanced reporting”.

But SkyPower wasn't talking to the media. So the media, left with only one side of the story to report from tonight's public meeting, will in all likelihood report just that one side – if the company wasn't talking to the media, the angry residents sure were.

And they were also talking elected officials who came out tonight as well – at least one local council member and the Member of Provincial Parliament for Nickel Belt. Another council member met separately with residents the night before.

Managing the Public's Expectations

Many who came out tonight expected a more traditional “public meeting” than what was being offered by SkyPower. Instead, what they got were a series of white boards with photographs placed on easels around the room, many depicting scenes of other SkyPower ventures not located in Greater Sudbury. Some had diagrams related to the process. There was very little in the way of tangible information on display, largely because, I suspect, there has been so little done (although let me be clear, as I know that's not the case – SkyPower has prepared a preliminary assessment – I've seen it, as it's been passed around through social media. It's something at least, but I couldn't seem to find any info about it at tonight's meeting. Had I wandered in off the street, I might have felt that SkyPower reps just woke up one day and had the bright idea that the Valley was a great place for solar energy and charged madly off in all directions to make it so).

Anyway, I was prepared for this sort of public meeting – it seems to be the in-thing to do nowadays, and I understand the advantages and disadvantages to doing it this way. But I was probably one of the very few there this evening who was prepared for a “meeting” like this – a meeting that really isn't a meeting, and more like a carnival ride where you enter at one end, proceed to be thrilled by the white board displays, and exit at the other, leaving your opinions behind on your experience. If you were lucky, you might have been able to try to grasp the brass ring along the way, in the form of snagging one of the SkyPower reps to answer your questions – although chances are, the questions being asked were ones for which there are currently no answers for.

Expectations matter. I understand that those whom received the letter from SkyPower about the meeting were unaware of the way in which the meeting would be conducted. I, too, looked for more information about how the meeting would be held, and I couldn't find anything online that said anything about it (in fact, I found very little about the meeting, beyond what was reported in the media – it was only through social media that I learned about the start time of the meeting). Expecting something a little more formal, I suspect led to the mob at the front doors to get in at 6pm. Had the public known how the meeting would be held, it's quite probable that we would have staggered our arrival.

Palpable Anger

So, an already angry public was, no doubt, made angrier by tonight's events. And the media will have little recourse but to publish this story, creating even more animosity towards what otherwise appear to be worthy projects (subject to further technical analysis).  SkyPower has done a great job of digging a hole for itself with the public's perception.  It must now try to climb out of it somehow - or risk having all of its projects buried in it.

Look, I'm all for renewable energy.  Anybody who has read my writing would know that.  And it's quite likely that these proposals will ultimately prove to be pretty good ones.  But this stuff matters. It matters how the public is engaged.  It matters how the media tells a story, because the media helps create perceptions amongst the broader public, giving rise to public opinion on an issue which might not have even been on the public's radar.

It is very likely that Council's decision to support (or not) these projects will be swayed by public opinion – after all, Council has little vested interest in the outcome, beyond the contracts generating some revenue for the City, should they be approved by the IESO.

One of the questions that I asked of the SkyPower rep I spoke with tonight was whether SkyPower had a public relations strategy to deal with the extreme negative fall-out from this whole experience.

SkyPower didn't have an answer for that one, either.

(opinions expressed in this blog are my own and should not be interpreted as being consistent with the views and/or policies of the Green Parties of Ontario and Canada)

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