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WindmillEnergy Minister George Smitherman is criss-crossing Ontario to build support for Bill 150, his Green Energy Act, Ontario’s most important climate change initiative, and the first of its kind in North America. He told a group in Toronto last week that the first reaction to the Bill was a flurry of complaints from realtors about the costs of home energy audits. The second was a wave of calls from people who want to do home energy audits.

We keep finding things to like in the Bill. The feed-in tariff (proposed dollar amounts announced today) and right to connect renewable energy projects to the grid may help to remove important obstacles to local power and renewable energy generation. However, the right to connect is not as simple as it sounds. One huge problem, for example, has been the orange and yellow zones created by the Ontario Power Authority to preserve power transmission capacity for nuclear plants. Windshare, for example, had already raised money for a wind energy cooperative near Lake Huron when OPA froze out all alternative energy projects in favor of Bruce Nuclear. The “right to connect” will exist in the yellow and orange zones, but it is subject to an “economic” and technical test. In other words, if adequate transmission capacity does not already exist ( the express justification for the orange and yellow zones), the first question will be whether sufficient new generating capacity is proposed to justify expanding the transmission system. Even where new investment is justified, the new transmission capacity must actually be permitted and constructed before renewable energy facilities can connect.

This underscores a major problem that the Green Energy Act does not solve. Generating electricity is only the beginning-you have to be able to take it where it’s needed. Some renewable energy facilities can be built close to demand, such as Windshare’s wind turbine at Toronto’s Exhibition Place. However, the best sites for wind, solar and geothermal energy are far away from the cities where demand is concentrated.

The U.S. stimulus bill has promised $11 billion for improvements to the US electrical grid, in order to permit increased reliance on renewable energy. The Canadian federal budget promised an unstated portion of $1 billion.   But money is not the major obstacle to constructing transmission lines. The biggest problem is getting permission to build them. Thirty years ago, when I was in Ontario’s Ministry of Energy, one of the projects we worked on was a new power transmission line from Bruce to Essa. Today, this line still hasn’t been built, due to objections from property owners and environmental groups.

In both Canada and the U.S., it has been extremely difficult to site new high-voltage electrical transmission lines, ever since environmental assessment and approvals became entrenched in the 1970s. Concerns about the biological effects of high voltage electromagnetic fields near transmission lines have persisted, despite dozens of studies over many years. And almost no one thinks power lines are pretty. U.S green energy advocates have begun to recognize that finding a timely way to site and build transmission lines is just as important a key to a low carbon future as finding ways to site and build renewable energy generation projects. “If you love renewable energy, you have to love transmission lines.” This won’t be easy.

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