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Biogas facility part of change in how we get our energy

Monday’s announcement of the proposed Green Energy Act came as perfect timing for Woolwich Bio-En Inc. The Elmira company’s plan for a $12-million biogas facility is just the kind of thing the province is looking for.

The day after the announcement, Bio-En hosted an open house to showcase its plans, and to answer questions about the project. The neighbours are understandably concerned, largely about the potential for odours and noise coming from the plant, which will convert organic waste such as manure into biogas, subsequently producing electricity and steam heat.

If Ontario pushes ahead with more alternative energy sources – wind, solar and biomass, to name a few – we can expect more small-scale projects like the one proposed for Elmira, and more gatherings of concerned neighbours.

Whether it’s the noise of turbines, the aesthetics of solar farms or the odours of biodigesters, there are going to be conflicts if we hope to move away from megaprojects to small, community-based solutions to meet our demand for electricity.

The Bio-En project has neighbours worried. This is largely the fear of the unknown: No matter how many reassurances are offered by the company, residents really have no idea what to expect. In the absence of other nearby plants to serve as examples, they fear the worst.

From talking with Gregor Agrinz and Armin Schöllauf of Austria’s Agrinz Technologies, biogas plants operate trouble-free in Europe today, and have been doing so for some three decades.

In Europe, where power – and almost everything else, for that matter – is much more expensive, these kinds of projects have made financial sense for years. With space at a premium, biogas facilities are located very close to residential neighbourhoods.

Of course, few of us here are able to jump on a plane and spend some time in Austria checking out the technology and its track record in neighbourhoods there. There’s something of a leap of faith involved in the Elmira proposal – and neighbours aren’t eager to make the plunge just yet. That sentiment is compounded by experience: the pet food mill and Chemtura chemical plants, for instance, have had odour problems that took ages to remedy, and none of the residents wants to go through that again with a new venture.

Given the location of the Observer office – we’re right across the street from the pet food mill and within the initial plume should things go awry at Chemtura – I’m familiar with the complaints. On the home front, I live close enough to a treatment plant to know what can happen when an unexpected release combines with an unfavourable breeze. I know exactly why neighbours are anxious.

Fact is, no matter how well the project is explained, and how many European examples are touted, there are still risks. If we’re to move away from our dependence on conventional energy sources, however, we’re going to have to go down the road less travelled.

Striking that path is precisely the goal of the Green Energy Act. What remains to be seen is if the McGuinty government will roll it out effectively – allowing entrance to small companies and excluding entrenched interests, with little or no cost to overburdened Ontarians – or do just the opposite, as seems equally likely.

For the time being, the GEA has been endorsed by a range of groups, from associations representing alternative technologies through to the Ontario Federation of Agriculture.

“The introduction of this legislation means Ontario will be a world leader in green development and it couldn’t come at a more opportune time as it directly addresses both our environmental and economic needs,” says Dr. Rick Smith, executive director of Environmental Defence.

At the Conservation Council of Ontario, executive director Chris Winter has a take indicative of the environmental movement’s root.

“Thirty-five years after Canadians coined the term ‘a conserver society’ we are finally seeing it embedded in meaningful legislation. Ontario’s new Green Energy Act will make it easier for communities and individuals to conserve and even generate their own power. It’s bringing power to the people. Right on!”

The hippie-ish sentiment of the latter is in keeping with the small-is-beautiful philosophy behind a longtime energy movement only now starting to get some official recognition. Large-scale projects, centralized and undemocratic, have been the norm, from rivers diverted and lands flooded for hydroelectric dams to massively expensive nuclear plants. The new paradigm – actually the old way of doing things – allows for electricity to be generated in small amounts locally, for local use. The impact is small, and transmission loss is minimized. Eventually, so too will be the impact of transmission lines themselves, a blight on the landscape.

To move toward that future, however, we’re going to have to adjust to a few changes. That might mean the whir of a few wind turbines next door, the sight of solar panels instead of roof shingles and, as residents in Elmira’s north end are experiencing today, the thought of a biogas facility nearby.

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