Publisher’s Column: Is Solar Power the Peninsula’s Crop of the Future?

By John Francis

On June 26, a delegation from Shift Solar asked MNBP Council to support a proposal to install a solar farm at the corner of Hwy 6 and Little Pike Bay Road.

Sounds like motherhood and apple pie, right? Who could possibly object?

Well, Council for one.

Councillor Smokey Golden had concerns about more power being fed into the existing power grid. She stated that Parks Canada is slow-walking its switch from fossil fuels to electric power out of concerns that the existing grid cannot carry enough power to handle the increased demand. The Shift Solar proponent told her that a solar farm would bring the source closer to the demand load; this would actually help rather than hinder the grid capacity problems. Councillor Golden remained unconvinced.

Deputy Mayor Rod Anderson noted that the proposal involved using prime farmland — a tough sell. Councillor Aman Sohrab asked if the proposed development could be put in other places. (Yes.) Councillor Todd Dowd agreed with the Deputy Mayor that it would be a shame to take prime farmland out of production. He wondered if another site had been considered — was there a backup? (No, they didn’t have a backup.)

CAO Peggy Van Mierlo-West promised to bring a report back to Council at a future date.

But it didn’t end there.

The Shift Solar proposal was also reviewed by the Municipality’s Climate Action and Waste Diversion Committee at its Oct 12 Meeting. The Committee passed a resolution (unanimously) that “…the Climate Action and Waste Diversion Committee hereby recommends that Council provide a Municipal letter of support for the Shift Solar proposal, and that it do so forthwith.”

When this recommendation came up at MNBP’s Oct 23 Council Meeting, the Councillors had had more time to think about it.

Councillor Dowd kicked off the discussion: “Sometimes the end doesn’t justify the means,” he began.
“I don’t see the need to build this on prime farmland; there is so little farmland on the peninsula, it would be a shame to take a hundred acres out of production for a solar farm.”

Mayor Milt McIver agreed. “I support solar … I just think there are alternatives”. He told Council that he had heard from several people in the farming community and they, too, were uncomfortable with the idea of taking prime, drained farmland out of production. He stated that the Planning Department would also take that view.

Councillor Golden reiterated her concerns about the grid. “Everybody wants to electrify everything but you need capacity.” She wanted to make sure we don’t “waste existing [grid] capacity shipping power south”.

Councillor Aman Sohrab is Council’s Rep on the Climate Action and Waste Diversion Committee. He offered a very different perspective. He strongly supported the proposal and urged Council to support it in principle, noting that if they become unhappy with the details, Council can always withdraw that support.  

Mayor McIver pointed out that normally Council is not asked to comment until the Planning Department brings a proposal forward. He was uncomfortable with being asked to support an initiative without it being reviewed by planners and without any kind of public consultation.

Councillor Golden wondered if “saying yes or no at this point” might be premature. Councillor Sohrab agreed, asking that Council not make a decision until they have received a delegation from the Climate Action Committee. Council agreed and deferred the matter.

Several Important Questions

All of this leaves several important questions without proper answers.

Are Councillor Golden’s concerns about the grid valid or was Shift Solar’s answer correct? This is an important issue going forward and the solar power proponents should offer a detailed, technical answer.

Solar power generation seems to me to be a perfect fit for the huge expanses of rocky, unproductive farmland on the peninsula. You have to wonder why Shift Solar chose prime, drained land instead.

On the other hand, it shouldn’t be either solar panels or agriculture. There is no reason — other than current provincial regulations — that solar panel fields couldn’t also be used for grazing or for growing shade-tolerant crops.

But if solar power generation has the potential to be such an important part of our rural economy going forward, shouldn’t our municipality be actively lobbying for grid improvements and more permissive mixed-use of solar panel fields?