I am writing today with regards to the above-referenced matters appearing on Planning Committee’s Agenda for July 6, 2015. The above-referenced matters are proposals for solar energy projects, primary ground-mounted projects.
Despite the clear limitations of the Provincial approval process, I nevertheless urge Planning Committee to consider offering its support for all of the projects appearing before it on July 6th, 2015. City Council’s endorsement of these solar energy projects will go a long way with the provincial Ministry of Environment and Climate Change.
EarthCare Action Plan: Energy
Although the City of Greater Sudbury lacks a renewable energy strategy which might guide decision-makers such as Planning Committee and Council in their consideration of these solar energy proposals, there are nevertheless some policies which the City has adopted through the EarthCare Action Plan which are relevant to these projects, which Planning Committee and Council should strongly consider.
All of these proposals are in keeping with the City’s stated goals related to renewable energy and the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, as stated in the EarthCare Action Plan: Energy. Specifically, these new solar energy projects will help achieve the following Objectives of the Action Plan, to “Increase local supply of energy derived from renewable sources.”
For this objective, the EarthCare Action Plan: Energy indicates that City of Greater Sudbury will promote and facilitate opportunities for energy generation that are supported by Ontario’s Green Energy Act. Further, EarthCare partners are tasked with attracting and retaining corporate investment in local renewable energy projects, and building local labour capacity in renewable energy, and continuing efforts to generate renewable energy locally.
The Public Interest
Clearly, the City of Greater Sudbury has articulated a firm commitment to establishing renewable energy projects within the City. Given this past commitment to renewable energy on the part of the City, if the City should withhold its support of these solar energy projects at this time, there ought to be a very good reason in the public interest for doing so.
I submit that there is no good reason for the City to considering withholding its endorsement of these solar energy projects.
I understand that concerns have been raised by members of the public, largely through social media, but also at public meetings related to these energy proposals. I have also seen support for these projects on social media sites, but it is my observation that I have seen more people comment unfavorably than favorably, at least with regards to some of these proposals.
In this case, however, public comments should not deter Planning Committee and Council from following the lead of the City’s excellent public policy as found in the EarthCare Action Plan: Energy.
Concerns Related to the Province’s Process
It is my observation that most of the more legitimate concerns of the public have more to do with the provincial process for evaluating these proposals than with the projects themselves – although I have to acknowledge that I have seen concerns raised about the impacts of these proposals on neighbouring landowners and land users as well, which I will address further – as well as a number of comments made publicly which have simply disparaged renewable energy in general, which I won’t further address.
The provincial process is, to me, an awkward one. I would certainly like to have the provision of more technical information up-fronted as a part of the process. That being said, technical information pertaining to a number of the issues identified by the public, including developing in wetlands, developing in the significant habitat of animal and plant species (which may include the habitat of endangered species), and stormwater runoff will all be undertaken by the solar energy project proponents as part of the provincial approval process.
Like the City of Greater Sudbury, the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change is charged to look out for the impacts of development on natural heritage features and ground and surface water. The provincial approval process for these will restrict development in circumstances where the habitat of threatened and endangered species is found to be present, and will address ways of mitigating impacts on other natural heritage features. Stormwater will be managed in ways which are acceptable to the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change. It should be noted that the provincial approval process already restricts solar energy projects from developing in prime agricultural areas, or in areas set aside for industrial and commercial development, or in areas adjacent to existing residential development, unless the project can be appropriately buffered.
Solar Energy Project Location-Based Issues
The ground-mounted solar energy proposals appearing before Planning Committee on July 6th, 2015, are all located in the City’s rural area (on lands designated “rural” in the City’s Official Plan). None of these lands have been identified by the City as areas worth preserving for agricultural activities (they are not prime agricultural areas - although agriculture is a permitted use on rural lands). Neither do any of these lands have designated natural heritage features. Some lands are impacted by floodplains, and all of the project lands which are so impacted contemplate development outside of floodplains. All of the subject proposals are located in areas outside of the City’s settlement area boundaries, and none are in areas which have been set aside for residential development over the lifetime of the City’s Official Plan (although it should be noted that one proposal is located in the Valley Urban Reserve – on lands set aside for urban development at some point in the future, beyond the lifetime of the City’s Official Plan).
Some members of the public have suggested that some proposals may be within provincially significant wetlands which have yet to be evaluated by the province. At this time, the province and the City have not identified any of the areas as being within a provincially significant wetland. It the lack of provincial evaluation is an issue which the province can address through the provincial approval process.
Public assertions have also been made that some of the projects contain lands which include the habitat of threatened and/or endangered species, or other significant wildlife habitat. As part of the provincial approval process, each project will look at and address these issues. At this time, however, there do not appear to be any flags in the City’s Official Plan which would suggest that any of these projects are include provincially significant wetlands, the habitat of threatened or endangered species, or other significant wildlife habitat.
Similarly, surface and ground water impacts will be evaluated by the province as part of the provincial review process.
Again, I personally would be more comfortable if these issues were to be addressed upfront in the process, but the province in its wisdom has determined that a more specific analysis of these and other issues (such as archaeological heritage) will be addressed later in the provincial process. Given that these issues are all matters of provincial interest identified in the province’s own policy documents, we should have some degree of comfort knowing that the province is likely to look after matters which it has itself flagged as important.
Issues Which are Non-Substantive and Why
The public has also identified a number of other issues with these proposals which I consider to be largely non-substantive – and I hope that Planning Committee and Council will agree with my analysis.
From what I have seen of my review of comments on social media sites like Facebook, many in the public are taking issue with the fact that these solar energy projects will result in a loss of tree cover. Concerns with a loss of tree cover are often related to a loss of view from the windows and backyards of abutting landowners, and a loss of prestige for the City of Greater Sudbury, as removing trees runs counter to regreening initiatives underway in our City since the 1970s.
I have been a big supporter of municipal regreening initiatives. There were many reasons initially identified with regards to replanting trees and shrubs in our communities. While I was not around at the time that the regreening initiative began, I can’t believe that one of the purposes of the initiative was to preserve each and every tree in the City for its own sake. Indeed, subsequent development proposals in our City for residential subdivisions, including many in the former Towns of Valley East and Walden, have led to the destruction of forests.
Although preserving tree cover is a worthy initiative, the fact is that Greater Sudbury has an abundance of forested areas. These solar energy project proposals are being made because the subject lands for each proposal are in locations near or adjacent to vital energy infrastructure needed to connect projects to the grid. As such, none are located in pristine areas of our City – all of the sites are in areas which have been subject to some sort of development activity in the past, whether specifically onsite or within close proximity to the subject lands.
Further, the City of Greater Sudbury has never passed a tree-cutting by-law under the Municipal Act to limit the removal of trees from private property. As such, there is nothing stopping any of the landowners today from clear-cutting the properties currently being considered for solar energy use. Clear cutting these properties can take place today – with or without solar energy development applications.
Further, the range of permitted uses in rural areas includes a number of uses which, by their very nature, will lead to a loss of tree cover.
While I respect that people are concerned about the loss of vegetation in our community, I would submit that these proposals are not substantively different than situations which can occur now on the subject properties as-of-right for property owners, without any public consultation necessary.
Issues Related to View Impacts
I understand that adjacent homeowners may be concerned about the loss of tree cover on their neighbour’s property. To address that very issue, the provincial approval process requires the creation of a buffer area between the solar project and the lot lines of abutting residential land uses. I understand that these buffer areas are to include visual buffers as well.
Finally, concerns have been raised by some members of the public that there are better locations for these solar energy projects. I agree with those concerns, as I clearly think that there are a number of locations in our community which are more suitable for this type of development than the ones being considered by Planning Committee on July 6th, 2015. However, the same can likely be said about a number of development proposals which have recently appeared on Planning Committee agendas. The City (or the Province for that matter) doesn’t get to be the decision maker in terms of choosing specific sites for certain kinds of development. Instead, as decision makers (and in this case, as potential endorsers) the City’s task is to evaluate matters which come before it, brought to it largely by private land-owning interests.
The onus is clearly on the development industry in these circumstances to make the case to the City that the lands can meet the tests of public policy and regulation before development is allowed to proceed. In the case of these solar energy proposals, those tests will be addressed at the provincial level through the Province’s own processes. If the solar energy developers can’t make the case to the authorized decision-maker that the projects will proceed, than the Province will have the ability to put a stop to any or all of the projects.
Community Vibrancy Funds
The development of any renewable energy projects within the jurisdiction of the City of Greater Sudbury will lead to contributions made to the City through community vibrancy funds. As articulated in the staff report, for a 25 MW project, the City can expect to receive approximately $60,000 per year in community funding. While this amount is not especially considerable (and while not all proposals will generate a contribution at that level), taken over the expected 20-year life of each proposal, vibrancy fund contributions for a 25 MW proposal would be estimated at $1.2 million – all of which are in addition to taxes the City currently receives from these rural lands.
To recap, I believe that the City has laid out a clear interest through the EarthCare Action Plan: Energy in facilitating the development of renewable energy projects in the City. While I understand that there have been a number of concerns raised by the public, I believe that these concerns will either be addressed by the Province through its approval process, or are lacking in substance.
The City has before it an opportunity to become the “Solar Capital of Northern Ontario”. To do so, however, the City must first champion the proposals which are in front of it. Each of these proposals represents an opportunity for economic development. On their own, each proposal is limited in terms of its likely impact on the local economy, but if the City is able to strategically position itself as being “open for business” to the renewable energy industry, it is quite likely that the sum of economic development activity will be greater than its parts. Admittedly, endorsing these projects would ultimately be just one of the first steps in the City establishing such a reputation (although in my opinion, it will go a long way after the City refused to consider any ground-mounted solar energy projects outside of gravel pits in its 2013 decision related to solar applications). First steps are, however, important ones to make. Subsequent steps would include developing a renewable energy strategy which includes goals, objectives and timelines for desired outcomes. It could also include an inventory of priority lands for renewable energy development, or policies to further guide private renewable energy development applications.
Other communities are taking a lead. Recently, Oxford County endorsed a resolution committing itself to being powered by 100% renewable energy by 2030, opening its doors to economic development activity from the renewable energy sector. Certainly Greater Sudbury is equally positioned to enjoy the benefits of the renewable energy revolution that is underway around the world – but to do so, we must have the courage to stay the course with our convictions, and the foresight to plan ahead for our success.
That is why I believe that the public interest in developing renewable energy as articulated in the EarthCare Action Plan: Energy is paramount, and that the City should endorse these projects.
(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)