Wind shifting against green energy project in northern community
Residents say they don’t want proposed wind farm in their area, and project CEO now looking at moving it
The political winds are shifting in Anse-Bleue.
For more than a year, people in the tiny community near Caraquet have been fighting plans for a wind farm development.
Residents like Gina Girard were convinced they were tilting at windmills, given the province's goal of more renewable electricity, and the fact the company, Naveco Power, is literally down the street from the New Brunswick Legislature.
"We're a little community of 400 people," she says. "It will affect 400 people, so for government, that's not important. What's important is the money."
With no municipal government, Anse-Bleue has no zoning power or land-use regulations to stop the five windmills from being built.
"The only power we have is to stay together and fight," says Ginette Bertin, the chair of the local service district.
But now, for the first time, Naveco's CEO Amit Virmani tells CBC News he is looking at moving the project out of Anse-Bleue, and out of northern New Brunswick altogether.
"We're open to actually moving the site to another location that's equally great in terms of a wind regime that would provide the same type of benefits to the province with respect to the energy that's generated," he says.
CEO defends site
Virmani says Anse-Bleue remains a great location and he insists local objections are unfounded.
"Does it make sense to continue on this site? Yes, it actually does," he says.
"But with the face of a handful of people who have raised so much opposition, what are the alternates? ... If we're looking at solving this greater problem of climate change, I have to be open to what are other potential solutions as well, and that includes moving the site."
That would require NB Power to agree to amend its existing contract with Naveco to buy 20 megawatts of electricity from the Anse-Bleue site.
"NB Power does not comment on the terms and conditions in any power purchase agreement as confidentiality conditions must be respected," spokesperson Marc Belliveau said in an email statement.
Virmani says if the utility refuses the change, he'll have to stick with his original plan for Anse-Bleue, despite the local opposition.
More than 85 per cent of residents signed a petition earlier this year against the wind farm.
One woman living on Route 320 in the heart of Anse-Bleue has a sign in her window that declares "Oui à l'énergie verte"--yes to green energy. On her back doorstep she confirmed she supports the wind farm but would not agree to an interview.
Virmani describes the opposition as a small group of people who have pressured their neighbours to join them.
"It's very easy to go ahead and say that you don't want something and then be able to get everyone else to come on side," he says. "The last you want to do is be ostracized in a small community."
But Girard points out that several municipal councils in the area including Caraquet, Grande-Anse, Maisonnette, Bertrand and Shippagan are also supporting the residents who oppose the plan.
Naveco's proposal comes under a 2015 law that allows small-scale local renewable energy projects to sell up to 20 MW of electricity to the NB Power grid.
It was first hatched by Daniel Brassard, a Quebec-based consultant who used to work as a land acquisition specialist for wind-energy and cellular phone companies, and who bought about 120 hectares of land in the Anse-Bleue area himself.
When he heard about the provincial initiative, he got in touch with Virmani, whose Fredericton start-up began as a venture to make a downtown office building owned by his family more energy efficient.
They began meeting with local residents, eventually signing lease agreements with about twenty property owners.
"When we bid, it was with the support of the private landowners and still is to this day," Virmani says.
"It's just people do not wish to say it out loud. Small communities being as they are New Brunswick, everyone knows everyone. And the last thing you want to do is say something that comes across as controversial."
The provincial program allows renewable projects that generate up to 20 MW and requires a a "local entity" to be the majority owner. The local entity must be a municipality, First Nation, non-profit organization or cooperative.
In Naveco's proposal the "local entity" partner was the city of Bathurst, but last December the municipality pulled out. Mayor Paolo Fongémie said at the time the business case was no longer viable for the city.
To replace Bathurst, Virmani set up a cooperative that includes himself and other Fredericton residents, but no one from Anse-Bleue.
Patrick Thériault, an organic farmer in the community, says that doesn't meet the criteria under the law.
"This is what they call a local entity," he says. "It's not at all. There's nothing local about it. Those people are not from here."
Virmani says there are Anse-Bleue residents ready to sign on if the project is approved and the controversy blows over.
But he also points out the law says the "local entity" must be controlled by "residents of the province." It doesn't require people from the particular community to be involved.
In February, however, then-NB Power CEO Gaetan Thomas told Radio-Canada that Naveco had to find a way to "work with the community and ensure there is a local component. … If they don't have the support of the community, it'll be difficult to move ahead."
The utility would not elaborate on his comments Friday, pointing instead to the wording of the law.
Way of life
Thériault, Girard, Bertin and others say they fear the large windmills will disrupt the peaceful way of life in Anse-Bleue.
"It's industrial, and we are not industrial," Girard says.
That's too high a price for them, even if the goal is more emissions-free electricity for the NB Power grid.
"It's not about green energy. This is not the topic here. It's about putting gigantic fibreglass and metal monsters right by the shore."
They worry about "shadow flicker," a flashing effect created by rapid sunlight and shadow from the windmills inside their homes. Virmani says he has promised to shut down the windmills at the times that would happen.
They also say the windmills will be visible from the Village Historique Acadien, ruining the tourist attraction's authentic portrayal of Acadian life in the 18th century. Naveco disputes that the windmills will be within sight of the attraction.
The opponents are also suspicious of Brassard's role in the project because he worked for another company, Skypower, that was looking to build a larger wind farm here 13 years ago.
"This is his project," Thériault says, "and he owns three hundred acres of land. So how can those two be separate events?"
But Brassard and Virmani both say rules governing the distances between windmills and homes prevent more than five or maybe six from being built in Anse-Bleue.
"Even if I wanted to have 20 windmills on my land, I couldn't do it," Brassard says. He says he wants to develop the land for agricultural use.
In 2007 Skypower and its local partner, the Atcon Group, tried to persuade NB Power to go around tendering rules to award it a wind-energy contract, a lobbying effort that came to light during a lawsuit that Skypower later abandoned.
Brassard says his work for Skypower was on land acquisition and he wasn't aware of its dealings with NB Power or the province. "I have no idea what you're talking about," he says.
There's also no link between the land Skypower would have used and the leases Naveco has signed.
Brassard confirms that one of his parcels of land is being leased by Naveco for a road to transport construction materials to the five windmill sites. But he says the royalty he'll be paid is "minimal" and won't make up for what he has invested in the land.
Virmani won't say exactly where his alternate site is, but he says it's in southern New Brunswick, would involve First Nations and would not require restarting the environmental impact assessment from scratch.
For Virmani the stakes in Anse-Bleue are high. He says he's the only New Brunswick company putting money on the line for renewable energy
Walking away from Anse-Bleue for another site would come at "a significant cost," he says, "but we're looking at what's the best that we can do for the province of the whole."
Without NB Power's consent to a move, Virmani will have to find a way to make the project work in Anse-Bleue.
Thériault is convinced it never will.
"This is a beautiful area, and we're rich here because we have untouched natural shore," he says.
"Everywhere we look, we see trees, we see the sea. The thing with windmills, it's so intrusive over the population because it's really big. You can see them from everywhere and you can hear them and it's really ugly.
"I don't think it's going to happen. It's a mess. I don't know what government would want to get into such a mess as to force a project like this on a population."