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Outdoor Farm Show - Farm the frontier in energy revolution

Farmers are usually a fairly conservative lot. However, in the energy revolution long underway in Europe and belatedly here in Ontario, farmers are in the forefront in the fight against climate change by pioneering the generation of renewable energy. For, while the sun and the wind are infinite and free to everyone, it is mainly farmers who have the requisite land. 

In fields across the province, windmills are rising up among the cows and crops. Closer to the barnyard, biodigesters that extract methane from manure are being constructed, and hooked up to the electricity grid. Farmers are being courted by wind developers keen to make a deal, and there are more and more takers who see renewable energy as another sustainable resource to be harvested. The big difference between farmers in Ontario and farmers in Europe is that over there, they own the farm – the wind farm that is.

In Denmark, which gets 20 per cent of its energy from renewables, 64 per cent of the wind farms are owned by farmers, while in the Netherlands, farmers own 60 per cent of the wind turbines.

Here farmers are in their silos, signing individual land leases with commercial wind developers. Many farmers have come to depend on the additional income from the lease to keep the family farm and continue farming. Collaboration, however, provides many more benefits to farmers than individual leases. Several studies undertaken in Iowa showed that “the lease payments made to farmers by commercial wind project developers typically pale in comparison to the income the farmer could earn if he instead owned the turbine himself or in conjunction with other members of his local community.”

For the community, one of the main benefits of local ownership is the appeasement of opposition from residents, who, because they see no benefits accruing to them, feel imposed upon by the nearby wind turbines. When they realize, as studies have shown, that the community as a whole benefits from local ownership, opponents have a tendency to be more accommodating while the local developer feels a greater responsibility and accountability towards his neighbours.

Communities also benefit financially. Studies in the U.S. show that locally owned wind generation creates up to 10 times more economic activity in the local community and state than does wind generation owned by out-of-state companies. When the owners are local residents, they are more likely to purchase more local materials for construction and hire more local residents, while profits stay in the community. This differs from conventional energy systems like that of Ontario, in which, according to the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, at least 75 cents of each dollar leaves the local economy. The province as a whole also benefits because generating energy closer to where it is used saves the cost of transmitting and distributing the electricity and avoids the costly losses of electricity along lines when it is transmitted. Local generation also saves the cost of building new transmission lines, which the public pays for collectively.

To reap these benefits, and its goal of 100 per cent renewable energy, the Ontario Sustainable Energy Association has, for nearly a decade, been helping farmers, First Nations, co-ops and community groups develop renewable energy projects. Members such as the Norfolk Federation of Agriculture, Countryside Energy Co-op and Farmers for Economic Opportunities, which represent many farmers, are working closely with OSEA to get renewable energy projects up and running. But it has been difficult with many bureaucratic barriers in the way and limited capacity on the grid systems.

The recently passed Green Energy Act, for which OSEA along with the Ontario Federation of Agriculture campaigned and had a direct hand in shaping, is meant to break down those barriers. One way it does that is by making it easier for farmers – or anyone – to form energy co-operatives. Another is the feed-in-tariffs – the premium, long-term prices paid for renewable energy – which level the playing field for community groups, so that they can’t be undercut by commercial companies with lower prices. Among of the highest in the world, these prices for electricity from solar and wind generation, biogas and biomass and small-scale hydro are fair and profitable – an incentive for everyone, but especially farmers, to produce the energy. On top of that, the province is offering a bonus for power produced by the community, a top-up even their commercial partners can get a slice of.

Community power – local, small-scale generation of renewable energy for local consumption – holds huge potential. Ontario’s residents have made clear their concerns about global warming and willingness to embrace sustainable energy to address the climate crisis. Now they are keen to put those principals into practice and install solar panels on the roofs of their homes (and barns), invest in wind farms and buy that biogas. Farmers in particular have a huge and essential role to play.

They, along with other concerned people, can learn more about how to actually develop a renewable energy project at the first annual Community Power Conference, which OSEA is hosting on November 15 and 16. The conference will showcase existing community power projects to serve as an inspiration and hold sessions on how to develop, finance and operate a community power project. Most importantly, the conference will highlight the incentives under the recently passed Green Energy Act for community groups, municipalities, First Nations, local distributing companies and farmers to product green electricity. Renewable energy is everyone’s business now and the farmers are on the frontier.

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