Friday, September 20, 2013

Middlesex County safeguarding taxpayers against extra costs

Ontario municipalities have been fuming for years over the province yanking away control over where giant wind turbines can be built.
But one Southwestern Ontario county is now claiming at least a partial victory, after a ground-breaking deal to put energy giants on the hook for their power lines and towering utility poles.
Under the Middlesex County deal, wind companies — not taxpayers — will be responsible for upkeep to their transmission networks along county highways, and any costs if all the hardware ever needs to be taken down.
“I’m really confident that we have the best agreement in Ontario,” county lawyer Wayne Meagher said. “What we’re saying is, ‘If you’re going to put a whole lot of stuff on our property, you’re responsible for it.’ ”
In a province where municipalities complain they have almost no say in whether, when, where or how wind and solar projects take shape, the London-area county is calling its deal a victory.
“I’m sure that it will be a landmark agreement across the province,” Middlesex chief administrative officer Bill Rayburn said.
Meagher said he’s surveyed arrangements between other municipalities and energy giants, and none are as good as the Middlesex deal.
At issue has been the location and financial responsibility of proposed new transmission lines and 30-metre-high poles for three three disputed wind farm proposals in northwest Middlesex.
Energy giant NextEra had wanted to put some poles closer to the road than the standard seven metres, said Meagher.
The company lso argued it should be able to use the road allowance without any financial commitment to the county.
Middlesex feared it would be stuck with extra costs to maintain road allowances and potentially to relocate any other utilities using the same stretches of roadside to make way for the new power lines.
It also worried it would have to cover clean-up or repair bills if anything happens to the towering metal poles carrying three transmission lines.
Meagher said NextEra is promising to fully pay to install, maintain and ultimately remove poles and wires they want built from its proposed wind farms north of London.
The company will also make yearly payments to Middlesex, to reflect its extra costs of maintaining roadways.
“We didn’t want anything that they’re doing to impact upon the taxpayer,” Rayburn said.
Middlesex politicians were especially worried taxpayers would be stuck footing the bills to remove poles and wires if projects were abandoned.
But in a process that involved regulator Ontario Energy Board, a road use agreement was reached to change that.
Residents won’t like everything about the deal, however: They’ve told councillors and the OEB they’re concerned about the height of the poles and the fact they’ll line roadways across from regular power lines.
And they’re still battling against the prospect of the three turbine projects themselves.
But that’s a different issue, said Middlesex Warden Brad Richards, noting the deal gives the county some safeguards if the projects go ahead.
Deeply subsidized by taxpayers, industrial wind turbines have become a huge flashpoint in rural Ontario for opposition to the Liberal government’s green energy policies. Dozens of communities, about half of them in Southwestern Ontario, have joined a growing revolt, declaring themselves “unwilling hosts” for the mega-projects. Some want a moratorium slapped on new projects until a federal study of health effects is completed.
Middlesex hasn’t plunged into that debate, but Richards said politicians may yet revisit it.
“I think it’s a possibility” even though it might be too late to make a difference, he said.
THE DEAL
— Energy giant NextEra to pay Middlesex County $4,000 per km of transmission line each year, about $128,000 a year.
— Lines would be run from three proposed turbine projects along about 32 km of county roads.
— NextEra pays to install, maintain and decommission poles and lines; also any repairs involving county property
— NexEra must provide credit letters of $375,000 for each project, as security against decommissioning.