Turbine spins its rotary blades off into never, never land. Mayor bails on renewable energy, says it was always a hydro project.

By Pepper Parr

BURLINGTON, ON  May 31, 2012  The meeting started with comments from the city manager who said there was information that had to be made public, that is both ” painful and embarrassing”  but had to be told if he was to adhere to his policy of being transparent.  It is certainly not what Jeff Fielding cam to Burlington to do. As he put it – “this is not good for the administration”.

His question to council was that “if you had this information would you have made the same decision” – and he then turned the microphone to city engineer Tom Eichenbaum who took the meeting through a disappointing series of events where misunderstandings were not clarified and the knowledge level needed to deal with the way wind power can be harnessed, measured and put to a positive environmental use was not in the hands of the city engineer.

This latest pier situation came to light when city engineer Tom Eichenbaum said he was told by Burlington Hydro that the energy from the turbine that was to be built on the pier could not be fed into the power grid.

Eichenbaum did what a good bureaucrat does; wrote a report setting out the problem and included some options.   Install a battery pack in the utility room beneath the turbine – cost: $70,000 or forget about using a turbine at all and just buy power from hydro and light the 12 lamps that will illuminate the pier and the LED lights that will illuminate the tower that the turbine was to sit on top of.

Council was surprised, certainly didn’t want to spend anymore money on the pier and decided to kill the turbine.  That didn’t fit all that well with BurlingtonGreen and they delegated to council two weeks later – but council said – no we don’t want to do anything and approved the cancelling of the turbine.

What we didn’t know then, but know now is that (a) a battery pack was available for $20,000 and not the $70,000,  and that Council was not told on April 18th that  there was a program available now that would let the power from the turbine feed into the power grid.  Nor did the city know that this program would result in no electricity bill the powering the lights on the pier.  The program is part of the Green energy Act and has been available since 2007

This is a little technical but bear with me.

When the idea of a turbine was first proposed it was going to be paid for with a grant Burlington Hydro got from the provincial government under the RESOP program.  Burlington Hydro was the lead on this application. The program has since gone through several changes as has everything in the field of alternative energy.

A crane toppling over and falling into the water was the beginning of a sad, expensive story for the city.

When the crane accident took place in 2008 the idea of a turbine sort of got lost.  Was there even going to be a pier was the question on the front page.  Most people thought the pier was going to be THE issue in the 2010 municipal election.  The winner for the ward two council seat in that election made the pier her number one issue and while she had scared the daylights out of the Cam Jackson campaign it was Jackson’s record as a Mayor that did him in.  The people in ward two kind of liked the sound of Marianne Meed Ward and chose her over Peter Thoem.  Candidates Dave Bodini and Shannon Gillies didn’t rank.

The change in council meant there was a new Mayor and three new council members with Meed Ward wanting to go back and negotiate with the original contractor Henry Schilthuis and Sons Ltd.,  and get the project back on track.  Council decided not to talk to Schilthuis and continue with the law- suit and re-tender the pier.

All was going well.  The city surrounded themselves with consultants who would ensure that the job got done right and it looked as if progress was being made.

Then the bumps.  The problem with getting power from the generator into the electricity grid became known mid April and the problem with the delivery of the steel that could pass the quality control tests emerged.  The first was an irritant that council solved by cancelling the turbine..  The second was much more serious and had the potential to delay the opening of the pier which could have very serious political implications.

Burlington Green didn’t buy the council committee decision to cancel the turbine and delegated to council and pointed out that the MicroFIT program the city said was not available was in fact available.  Eichenbaum did not appear to know that. The MicroFIT program did have a waiting list but it looked as if the wait would not impact on the city’s schedule.

More to the point – there was a second program called “net metering” that was also available and could be made operational just as soon as the turbine was installed.  The meters to measure the flow of electricity were already installed in the utility room.

The “net” – the difference between what we send and what we use is what we pay for.  Given Burlington’s situation we will,  most of the time, send in more energy than we use.  The only down side is that we don’t get any money for the energy we feed into the grid and don’t use. Burlington can live with that downside.  Eichenbaum did not appear to be aware that the program even existed.

Some significant mistakes had been made relating to information about getting a turbine in place and using the energy from the turbine to power the lights on the pier.  The city engineer had to take the meeting through a painful explanation as to what happened, where the mistakes were made and what steps were taken to fix the mistakes.  It was not a pretty picture.

We will take you through the sorry story:

On February 15th the engineering staff was told the transformer station on Cumberland Street could not accept an energy feed from the wind turbine.  The public first heard this news April 18th at a council committee when Council decided not to go along with the idea of a battery pack solution and to instead cancel the turbine.  BurlingtonGreen heard about this piece of news and delegated to the council meeting to advise the city that the grid could accept power under a program known as micro Fit that had been around since 2009.

That information goes to council committee and they decide to cancel the turbine.  It then goes to Council where BurlingtonGreen tries to get the decision reversed. Council still decides to cancel the turbine.

Engineering staff nevertheless follow up on what BurlingtonGreen taught them.  The city manager realizes that staff has misled council and prepares a document that goes to Committee May 30th and asks council this question.  “Given this new information we now have – would you still make the decision you made April 30th“.

At that May 30th meeting Eichenbaum explains in considerable detail what went wrong.  It was not a pretty picture.

Before Eichenbaum gave his version of things at that meeting,  two delegations spoke to Council, both from people well versed in the alternative energy business.  Martin Ince,  a consultant who does what are known as “big wind” projects was familiar with the wind on our part of Lake Ontario and advised council that they were doing the right thing.

Deborah Power from Niagara Wind Power, the company that was to be the supplier of the turbine that was going to be used,  explained that the turbines she was supplying could be used for both the MicroFIT program and the “net metering”  program; it was just a matter of which model you ordered, the cost was the same.

Net metering was apparently something Eichenbaum had not heard of before nor did anyone on council seem to know anything about this program.

Deborah Power of Niagara Wind Power explained how “net metering”  worked to Councillor Meed Ward who appeared to be the only council member interested enough to ask questions.

This is what the turbine that is supposed to be installed on the pier. Burlington Hydro provided the funds to pay for it and once installed it will generate power at no cost to the city for as long as 50 years. Council still chose to cancel the turbine. The hydro bill for electricity to light up the pier will come in at $35,000 annually - forever.

When the turbine is creating energy, Power explained,  it sends it to the electrical grid and the meter that reads the flow of energy turns BACK.  The lights are powered by electricity drawn from the electrical grid.  When we draw energy a meter that reads the energy used goes FORWARD .  The difference between the forward and the backward meters is the number that determines what our hydro bill is going to be.

Given the size of the generator Burlington was going to install and the projected need determined by the consultants – there would be no energy cost for lighting up the pier.  If there was an energy cost it would be very low.

Ms Power wasn’t able to say what Burlington’s energy cost is going to be without getting some basic information, like how many light standards are there going to be and how many LED lights – but she said with that information in hand she could tell the city almost to the dime what it will cost to light the pier with a turbine.  The number of $3200 per month was floated but it could not be verified.  $3200 x 12 amounts to $38,400 – forever.  And with the cost of energy sure to rise – well you get the picture.

A pier in North Carolina that reaches out into the Atlantic ocean has three turbines identical to the ones planned for Burlington.

With the microFit program the city would have entered into an agreement with the province to sell them energy at a fixed price for twenty years.  The city would then have to buy power from hydro at the going rate, which right now is lower than the going rate but we all know hydro is going to increase for those occasions when the turbine is not providing enough energy.

Despite this information – council chose to walk away from using a turbine.

Despite the foolish comments made by Councillor Sharman about ROI, return on investment – the turbine was being paid for by funds that Burlington Hydro got from the provincial government on our behalf.  That grant was for $100,000 and the cost of the turbine, installed and made operational was $ about $85,000   The city just didn’t have this data, didn’t know about net metering.  Your council lost the opportunity to make a wise, financially beneficial and environmentally friendly decision.  They didn’t have to cancel the turbine Wednesday night – they could have voted to defer and get all the facts.  They didn’t.

Councillor Dennison kept asking why the city wasn’t using solar – it was explained that solar wouldn’t work on the pier setting.  What Dennison didn’t tell anyone was that his Cedar Spring Health club operation was one of the 297 organizations in line for entry into the microFit program.  That information isn’t necessarily a conflict of interest but it was certainly relevant.

Councillor Taylor listened to the people from Niagara Power and had one question: “Do you have a claim against the city due to the cancellation of the turbine?”  When M’s Power said no Taylor  wanted to know why staff did not mention net metering.  The answer was because they didn’t know.  Taylor said he had never heard about the option before.

Councilor Lancaster didn’t appear to fully understand the issues and was busy chairing the meeting.

Councillor Craven didn’t appear to have an opinion – he asked just the one question about when the public would get out on the pier.

The Mayor chose not to lead the discussion and instead turned to staff asking: “What should we do?”

Staff had a bigger fish that had to be fried.  Getting the Pier done in time to open in 2013 is their single focus  – if that doesn’t happen – they might well be out of that frying pan and into the fire.

The city managers view was that “all things being equal we should leave the turbine our”.

Disturbing was that not one council member could see the financial benefit and ask staff to take a hard look at the information they had been given.  Niagara Wind Power had nothing to gain – they  already had a contract to provide the turbine.  They just felt there was a better deal for the city if they went the “net metering” route rather than the microFit.  Niagara Wind Power would and could install a turbine to do either.

Council was confused and thinking about the fall out if the pier was delayed. Goldring seemed unable to lead. Stewart is totally focused on getting the pier completed and from his perspective the matter of a turbine is “small potatoes” and he was prepared to live without one.  He did add that “this was awful from an environmental aspect”.

Meed Ward had all kinds of questions about net metering which brought all kinds of information to the surface.  Eichenbaum didn’t know anything about the subject. What Meed Ward missed was the significance of the real savings and long term advantage of going the net metering route.

The ward two Councillor asked: “What else don’t we know?  How is it possible that we didn’t know about net metering?  Did you know about this when you wrote your report?” she asked of Eichmann?

A council that just couldn't get its head around a very real cost savings for the lighting of the pier. The focus was instead on getting the pier completed for the summer of 2013. The delay until July of delivery of steel beams that meet the quality control specifications has put the 2013 date in serious jeopardy. If there is a hard winter and a late Spring the project will not make it for 2013. The next municipal election is in 2014. If the pier doesn't open the summer of 2013 - guess what the campaign issues will be?

Ms Power explained that the meters to do the measurement were already in the utility room.  Meed Ward has to be given credit for asking the questions about net metering and getting it on the table.

The Mayor wanted to thank staff for being candid and said: “In some ways this is a good thing, now we are saying no for other reasons.  I’m happy that we don’t have to worry about it now”.

Meeting in committee council chose to receive and file the report from Eichenbaum and not take the opportunity to seriously consider the turbine issue – they wanted to put it behind them.  The city manager gave them the opportunity to change their minds.  Two delegations presented more than enough information to at least ask for a delay and verify the data.

Any Schnurr of Burlington Green had written the Mayor earlier in the week.  Mayor Goldring responded in a letter that can only be seen as a brush off and what would appear to be an abandonment of his environmental position as a federal Green Party candidate.

In the Mayors response to Schnurr he said:  At last night’s Community Service Committee, Council was asked to review new information about the wind turbine that was removed from the pier project.

 Council received and filed the report last night. This means that the turbine project was not reconsidered and remains out of the project scope.

 Council and staff are focused on completing the pier. The wind turbine was a project initiated by Burlington Hydro in 2005. At that time, renewable energy was in its infancy relative to local projects. The project was for demonstration purposes.

 Since 2006, when the pier project was originally rendered, technology and implementation of renewable energy projects has progressed. The City recently implemented a significant project at Fire Station # 8 and is continuing to look at appropriate opportunities for renewable energy use. The City has also initiated the Community Energy Program to look at long term energy sustainability and this project will include, energy conservation and renewable energy generation as part of the long term plan.

 A wind turbine at the end of the pier presents some challenges. Given the option, Council has chosen to minimize any of those issues and I am sure will continue to look at viable renewable projects in the future.

Most of those comments are true – what the Mayor fails to recognize is the the city will have to spend more than $35,000 a year forever to pay for the electricity that will light up the pier.

That may be an email the Mayor will come to wish he had not sent.

The problem with the turbine has been confusing and perplexing.  The whole pier project has been xxx  The meeting at which all this got worked through had its own form of  “black humour”  Deborah Powers had told Meed Ward that  short of a plane crashing into the turbine it would last 50 years.  Almost simultaneously council members responded with – “what if a crane fell onto it?  It was that kind of meeting.

The city’s  communication department chose to issue a short statement saying: City staff yesterday gave the Community Services Committee some key updates related to the Brant Street Pier—including details about steel delivery, the wind turbine and the city’s legal activity.

The committee heard that despite the steel installation scheduled for July, several months behind schedule, the delivery date of the completed pier will still be June 2013. The project remains on budget, according to the amount approved by council in September 2011.

It was a glum looking city manager who talked of being "embarrassed" at how council was mislead over the turbine matter. He has taken the view that the pier completion date 54 weeks from now can still be met. He is however figuring out what mitigation measures he should be taking.

“We wanted to confirm that the right quality of steel has been ordered,” said City Manager Jeff Fielding. “We are reviewing our timelines, but I believe that we can make up for any schedule delays.”

Wind turbine:  Staff also introduced a report providing information about the wind turbine and renewable energy options for the pier project. City Council removed the wind turbine in April after being told the city could not hook up to the power grid. Staff then cancelled the order for the wind turbine. 

In May, city staff met with hydro officials and discovered that the city may be able to connect to the grid through the MicroFIT program run by the Ontario Power Authority.  

Committee chose not to reverse the wind turbine decision, instead considering renewable energy opportunities as part of the city’s Community Energy Plan in conjunction with Burlington Hydro.

Legal update:  The city’s legal team provided a confidential update to the Community Services Committee. The city is entering the next phase of litigation proceedings which includes the exchange of documents and discoveries. 

I don’t think the city has heard the last of this issue.  BurlingtonGreen will probably be back; Meed Ward may decide she wants to attempt to revive the issue.

Stay tuned.


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