One of the key promises of the Green Energy Act is a “one window” approval process for renewable energy projects, coupled with a six month “service guarantee”, to cut through the current dozens of approvals for a power generation project.
It won’t be easy for the Ministry of Environment Approvals Branch to actually provide this service, especially for biomass projects.MOE approvals backlogs have been a bane of Ontario’s economy for more than two decades. Many attempts to simplify and speed the process have been proudly announced, but backlogs have always stubbornly returned. More ambitious plans have gone nowhere, such as the Transformation Agenda, which would have stopped wasting MOE approvals expertise on minor environmental risks. (Alberta adopted such a system years ago.) The MOE is still painfully slow in issuing air, sewage and waste approvals, even after four decades of experience. How will they cope with renewable energy approvals on top of their existing load?
Renewable energy approvals will be much more demanding for the MOE (and the Environmental Review Tribunal) than anything they do now:
1. The Green Energy Act is an ambitious attempt to transform Ontario’s economy. This means disruptive changes, which may meet stronger opposition than current run-of-the-mill applications.
2. The new approvals must be measured against a much broader definition of “environment”, requiring the MOE to evaluate and balance social, economic, archaeological, aboriginal, planning, landuse and other issues, in addition to the environmental issues that are its core mandate.
3. The new approvals will have an unusually broad scope. Associated roads, water crossings and transmission lines, for example, will all have be assessed, and regulated, as part of the renewable energy approval.
4. Projects with renewable energy approvals will be exempt from municipal and most other controls. This will focus all opposition squarely on the MOE approval process, without the current opportunity to shift some of the conflict, or solutions, to municipal and other levels.
5. Few MOE staff have expertise or experience in these broader areas. In addition, renewable energy technologies are developing quickly. By definition, the MOE lacks experience in regulating innovative technologies, and has always had trouble doing so. Last year, in Lafarge, the courts ruled that MOE regulatory inexperience is a valid ground of appeal against approvals.
6. Proponents have been promised a six-month “service guarantee” for decisions on renewable energy approval applications. In the past, the MOE has refused to give itself deadlines, or has avoided them by simply finding reasons to “stop the clock”. This time, they won’t have this out.
Despite the initial focus of GEA opposition on wind, biomass may be painfully hard to regulate.
Biomass is a key element in Canada’s green future, with our large forestry and agriculture sectors and relatively small population, but it is dogged with regulatory obstacles. The Green Energy Act will help to lift the stigma and regulatory burden of being called “waste”. The “waste” issue has a troubled history; after three decades of MOE and judicial incoherence, we still have no clear definition of what it means. (Because of painful experiences with market fluctuations, regulators reject the obvious “economic value” test.) It remains extremely hard to get approvals for any waste transfer, processing or disposal site; they are often forbidden by zoning. But the MOE continues to insist that many digestates or other residues from a biomass facility must be treated, expensively and probably unnecessarily, as waste.
Whether “waste” or not, biomass issues do have a long history of real problems, which are bound to give Approvals pause. Municipal and private biomass projects (such as composting, energy from waste, renderers, animal by-product plants, etc.) have famously triggered deluges of complaints about odour, leachate, particulates, etc. Promising sources of biomass, such as paper fibre biosolids, sewage sludge, manure, wood chips and yard waste, all show up regularly in expensive court cases and in MOE complaint logs. Public and MOE fury have shut down several multi-million dollar composting facilities over odours; even farm-based biodigesters are often unpopular. Foul odours seem to make neighbours crazier than any other impact; perhaps because odours directly affect the primitive emotional centre of the brain. I therefore expect Approvals to be extremely demanding about control of odour, leachate, dust etc. at all biomass facilities, to an extent bound to infuriate proponents.
Biomass facilities may also be hard to site well because of biomass’ relatively low energy density, in comparison to coal, plus relatively high labour and transportation costs. The best sites may be not well served with infrastructure. Biomass may be better suited for smaller, dispersed plants, rather than giant nuclear or coal, but Hydro One says this will require huge changes in our electrical transmission systems. In addition, small plants may find it hard to meet Approvals demands for setbacks and expensive odour controls.
We have heard little from the MOE on how the Approvals Branch will meet all these demands. A multistakeholder committee of government ministries has been promised, but it won’t necessarily offer much help. One obvious risk is that renewable approvals won’t get through in a reasonable time, driving innovation and the green future to other jurisdictions. Resources needed to manage renewable energy approvals may also be shifted from existing approval processes, starving them into even more destructive backlogs.
In addition, the definition of eligible “biomass” will likely be highly controversial, as it hides an unusually complex set of tradeoffs. Is it “green energy”, for example, to clear-cut and burn old growth forest from a provincial park? Or to drain peat bogs? Or to burn garbage? Or used tires? What about waste paper, if it could be recycled? Will the existing troubled composting or energy from waste facilities count? It is no surprise that the American Clean Energy and Security Act definition of “biomass” goes on for multiple pages. The cheery innocence of existing Ontario definitions, such as:
1. In this Regulation,
“biomass” means biological materials, including gases generated from the decomposition of biological material
certainly will not last.