Wind talkers

In what seems like just a few months, Newfoundland and Labrador has gone from having no significant wind-generated energy at all to becoming a potential pin cushion of turbines.

Along with the massive proposed World Energy GH2 wind-hydrogen project on the Port au Port Peninsula, other energy proponents are eyeing similar developments on Crown-owned land across the island, including the Avalon Peninsula.

The province released a preliminary map of proposed sites last week as a prelude to public consultations.

World Energy’s Project Nujio’qonik has garnered fierce opposition from some groups, although much of that evaporated in the wake of the company’s decision late last week to leave the proposed UNESCO site of Lewis Hills and Blomidon Mountains untouched.

Nonetheless, with the company’s ultimate goal of plopping 164 turbines across most of the peninsula and other parts of the west coast, the rush for wind-based energy has prompted many in the province to wonder whether they, too, might someday wake up to a forest of windmills in their backyard.

Yet, increasingly, it’s the traditional protectors of the land who are coming forth to embrace this newest wave of green energy production.

‘Beyond rhetoric’

Wind energy is a relatively new concept for Newfoundland and Labrador. While a handful of turbines have gone up over the years, nothing of any scale has been envisioned in the past 15 years because of a moratorium on wind energy imposed in 2007 to tip the scales in favour of the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project.

That moratorium was lifted last April.

For other provinces, however, wind energy is a growing concern, and Indigenous communities are often on the front lines.

“Green energy partnerships between Indigenous communities and private enterprise in Canada represent an opportunity to move beyond rhetoric and create action on clear and present challenges,” John Beaucage and Frank Davis wrote in The Globe and Mail last year.

“Our political leaders must now work to create the investment climate necessary to make more of these partnerships and projects a reality.”

Beaucage is a former chief of Wasauksing First Nation in Ontario. Davis is legal counsel for a company called Pattern Energy and a board member of the Canadian Renewable Energy Association.

Both were involved in a partnership between the Henvey Inlet First Nation and Pattern Energy in 2014 to erect 87 wind turbines on reserve land between Georgian Bay and Highway 89 near Britt, Ont.

It’s the largest wind-based Indigenous collaboration in the country.

Beaucage and Davis say revenue from the project, which was completed in 2019, will allow Henvey citizens to gain an unprecedented degree of control over their economic future. Community recreation centres, schools, treatment facilities and emergency response capability are all on the community’s short-term priority list, all of which will be financed by project royalties.

“The project is an example of several in Canada, but so many more are possible and must be encouraged through tangible policy implementation at a regional and provincial level.”

Like anything unfamiliar, the prospect of giant windmills dotting the landscape can cause apprehension.

It doesn’t help that carbon industry operatives have been spreading myths about them in order to stoke public fear and opposition.

Fred Vicaire says when three Mi’kmaw communities on Quebec’s Gaspé Peninsula came together in 2013 to partner with energy company Innergex on a wind farm, they made sure environmental standards went beyond provincial and federal guidelines.

“We have a tribal secretariat … that takes care of the political and governance aspect,” Vicaire, chief executive officer of the Mi'gmawei Mawiomi Business Corp., told The Telegram.

“They looked at tribal issues such as hunting, medicinal and territorial matters. We went above and beyond those that were regulated by the province to accommodate our members from each of the First Nations.”

When the wind farm was first proposed in 2009, Vicaire says the communities were apprehensive.

“During that time, wind was a little iffy. People didn’t really understand it. So there were issues and concerns with regards to bird migrations and all that kind of stuff,” he said.

“That was all avoided with consultation.”

Among the fears addressed were wildlife disruption and sound pollution.

“We do studies … and there’s never been issues with bats or birds or anything like that. And for hunting, as well, it really hasn’t been an issue,” Vicaire said.

There is some logging in the area, he said, so the moose and deer have already adapted to human activity.

As for noise, that’s only a problem at the beginning.

“There’s more of a disturbance when you’re actually constructing, but then afterwards, operational wise, it’s relatively quiet, except for the swishing of the (blades),” he said.

“I’ve been to the site many times, and you really have to be close by the tower to really hear the swishing. Like, really close.”

The farm has 47 turbines producing 150 megawatts of power that is sold to Hydro-Québec, but Vicaire said they’re looking at adding another 20 or so turbines in the near future.

On Newfoundland’s west coast, the Qalipu First Nation has signed a memorandum of understanding with World Energy GH2 so it can be a central player in overseeing Project Nujio’qonik, even though it can’t afford an equity stake.

“If it goes ahead … Qalipu First Nation, our council, decided we should be at the table so that our voice can be heard,” Chief Brendan Mitchell said in a recent interview.

“If you’re not at the table at all, you don’t get any say. I don’t want to be in a place where I wonder what happened.”

Mitchell believes people in the Port au Port region have been skeptical largely because the company was initially not providing enough information.

He cited a particularly loud consultation in Sheaves Cove.

“People were very much against this project. One of their biggest concerns is that no one is talking to them.”

However, Mitchell said Indigenous groups realize something has to change.

“We have to do something about the situation in this world regarding climate change and, yes, our massive use of fossil fuels,” he said.

“We can’t keep up the way we’re going. We are getting warmer. … We know things are happening all over the country and all over the world.”

‘Wind rush’

Like Mitchell, Chief Mi’sel Joe of the Miawpukek First Nation (MFN) at Conne River is equally eager to get in on the province’s “wind rush.”

And like Mitchell, he’s adamant that there be no shortcuts in assessing the environmental impact.

“My only concern for all this … is we should always be mindful of the environment and that nothing be fast-tracked at all,” he said. “If it takes a year, two years, three years to make sure the environment issues are all covered off, then that’s what should be done.”

MFN has already signed memoranda with three separate energy companies — Fortescue Future Indistries, Red Earth Energy and Source3 Energy — that could see another development on the west coast, as well as projects on the Burin and Avalon peninsulas.

Joe says he will keep a close eye on the Port au Port Peninsula to avoid any pitfalls should their own partnerships come to fruition.

“And also, we’re not only keeping a watch on that, we’re keeping an eye on other parts of Canada and the world.”

Peter Jackson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Telegram