A new cash cow for Huron farmers
Wind turbines generate $5,000 per 1.5 acres

No wonder farms are lining up to play host to one

Toronto Star Newspaper
, July 26, 2004.

UNDERWOOD, ONT.—Even on a muggy July day, a steady breeze sweeps across the newly cut hay field on the Kempers farm, up on the escarpment that rises behind Lake Huron's beach-lined eastern shore.

There's always wind here, says Les Kempers, 32, who grows soybeans, wheat and other grains on his own land and helps out with his parents' 45-cow dairy operation.

He's not complaining.

The steady blow, often rising to howling gales in fall and winter, puts his farm in the likely hub of Ontario's fledgling wind-power industry. It could bring thousands of dollars tumbling his way every year.

Several companies plan to erect hundreds of electricity generating turbines along the Huron shore. For the past few months, they've been rushing to option potential sites from farmers like Kempers, and testing to find locations with the most consistent, strongest wind.

Similar land rushes are underway at other sites across Ontario.

But Huron's eastern shore, from south of Goderich up to around Port Elgin, is prime wind territory. It's already home to six of Ontario's puny total of 10 turbines — demonstration sites that, province-wide, can produce 14.5 megawatts of electricity; a mere 0.02 per cent of the province's supply. But proponents insist wind energy is about to boom, as it already has in Europe, India and parts of the United States. It has the potential to supply 10 per cent of Ontario's demand, says Glen Estill, a director of the Canadian Wind Energy Association.

Kempers walks across the gently rising green field toward a line of trees. The land is open, and the view long in all directions.

His parents, John and Norma, emigrated from Holland in 1958 and moved to the farm when he was just six months old. Despite the hard work and financial strain, he loves the life and wants to buy or rent more land. "I've got big ambitions," he says.

He'll know by mid-August whether his farm will be home to turbines, whose slender, 45-metre blades will spin slowly with a soft whooshing sound atop white, 100-metre-high steel towers — well above the trees that edge the field.

"I like the look of them," he says. "It's a clean sharp look. I like the fact it's clean energy."

The numbers look pretty good, too.

Kempers and his parents own 600 acres. The company he is dealing with, Toronto-based Leader Wind Corp., figures there's room for one turbine every 100 acres. Leader Wind will pay most landowners about $5,000 a year plus inflation, on a 21-year lease, for each machine on a property. If any owners negotiate a better deal, all those who have signed on with the company will get that same amount.

The company offers a second method of payment — a small percentage of the revenue from each turbine — but only a few have chosen it.

Leader Wind also pays landowners the cost of having a lawyer examine the 32-page option agreement, and promises to repair drainage tiles and other farm infrastructure damaged when turbines are erected.

For that, farmers relinquish up to 1.5 acres of land for each turbine and a service road. All transmission lines are to be buried. The remaining land can be farmed as usual.

"Nothing I can grow legally on an acre and a half will net me $5,000," Kempers says.

Cash-crop farmers like Kempers can, in a good year, make $10,000 for each 100 acres of workable land. In a bad year, they might earn nothing. And the margins are getting tighter. Having a turbine on their land would be like winning a mini-lottery; a regular cheque every year for at least two decades.

"I've talked with my neighbours," Kempers says. "In a tough year (the turbine payment) will really help. In a good year, it will be gravy. That's the way you look at it."

Fiete Suhr, who bought a 110-acre farm near Paisley four years ago, not only optioned his land to Leader Wind but also, as one of three local agents for the company, promotes the project to other landowners.

Of the 40 to 50 he has visited, only a couple — who aren't farmers — were opposed.

"The farmers have offered their land; they see the opportunity," says Suhr, an organic grower who, with a partner, bought another 200 acres this spring. "You give up an acre of land. You give up $80 revenue (the average from cash crops) and you're given $5,000.

"There's no doubt it's a really good deal ... It increases the revenue per farm significantly without any impact."

The money could be especially crucial for local farmers who raise beef cattle. Their business has been decimated by the scare over mad cow disease, which continues to shut off sales to the United States.

`I like the look of them (wind turbines). It's a clean sharp look. I like the fact it's clean energy'

Les Kempers, Lake Huron farmer


Wally Schaus is one of the big cattle operators. He's been in the business for 35 years. Before the mad cow crisis, his companies owned 30,000 cattle. They grazed on pasture near Lake Huron and fattened in feedlots across Canada. The total is down to 10,000.

Schaus, 62, was the first local landowner to sign up with Leader Wind. He has optioned 1,000 acres, including grassland on one of the highest points along the lakeshore.

"Wind power is a good idea," he says. With coal, nuclear and other options under attack, "where's the hydro supposed to come from? It's a natural to use the wind at your back."

The turbines he's seen elsewhere don't bother cattle, he says. And the cash they bring will help.

"If the beef industry was normal, this would be a nice topping; it would be a real nice RRSP."

But things aren't normal: "Today in the cattle business you're fighting for pennies. Every dollar is significant."

The turbine money could allow some smaller cattle operations to survive.

"It's not too good to be true, but it is good for the community," says Schaus.

Since last winter, Leader Wind has optioned about 14,500 acres between Kincardine and Port Elgin, tying up properties for about $10 a year per acre. Most are on the east side of Highway 21, well away from the lake, and far out of sight of the recreation properties close to shore.

"We're very happy with the wind we've found," says Chuck Edey, Leader Wind's chief operating officer.

An associated company, Twenty Two Degree Energy Corp., has optioned 6,000 acres south of Goderich and aims to double that total. (Yet another related firm, Echo Power Generation, has a project on Lake Erie's north shore.)

Other companies — including Edmonton-based Epcor Power Development Corp.; Vision Quest, a division of Calgary's TransAlta Energy Corp.; and Clipper Wind Energy, from California — are also working the area. In some cases, they compete to get options on the same parcels of land.

Many landowners with options won't cash in on the bigger prize — getting a turbine — either because their sites turn out to be unsuitable or the project they're tied to dies.

Most others will have to be patient. The province has announced firm plans to buy just 300 megawatts of power from wind, water, solar, and other renewable sources. It's expected that about 250 of those megawatts will be wind-generated. No company, or group of associated firms, will be allowed to sell more than 150 megawatts into the provincial power grid.

Final applications must be in by Aug. 25. Winning projects — those that meet technical requirements and offer the lowest prices — are to be selected this fall.

So far, nearly 100 companies have bid to provide a total of 4,400 megawatts. About half are expected to fall by the wayside, for technical or financial reasons. Even so, that still leaves far more potential production than the province is currently prepared to buy.

However, additional projects will be taken up later if the province carries out its plan to have 1,350 megawatts of renewable power by 2007, and 2,700 megawatts by 2010. The companies are counting on that, as well as additional provincial and federal subsidies and tax incentives. Most expect Ontario to issue another call for bids early next year.

Along Lake Huron, initial word of the wind power projects stirred opposition, mainly from cottage owners who feared the turbines would disturb their quiet, ruin their views and kill birds. Most, however, support the developments.

Several hundred people attended information meetings held by Leader and Twenty Two Degree. Hard questions were asked, but there were no signs of hostility, Kempers says.

The biggest concern was allayed when local governments ruled turbines must be at least 1,200 metres from the lake and 300 metres from buildings or property lines. That means they can only go on open land.

And as technology improves, turbines get larger and more efficient. Early versions could generate perhaps 660 kilowatts of electricity. The standard now is more than twice that, or about 1.5 megawatts. Models that produce up to 3 megawatts are being developed.

That means they'll be spaced much farther apart than those in previous wind farms, like those in California and Alberta, where rows of towers cover vast areas.

The increased spacing, and the fact the 45-metre-long blades rotate more slowly than early models, will reduce the hazard for birds, the companies say.

Suhr grew up in Germany and managed farms for others after moving to Canada 25 years ago. He loves the land and likes nothing better than walking his fields.

If turbines are installed on his and his neighbours' land, he will be able to see as many as five of them — along a low ridge that forms the horizon — from the second-floor deck of the comfortable home he shares with his wife and two young daughters.

"I have a beautiful farm but I don't mind the idea of looking out toward the hill and seeing turbines. I'd quite like that. They're so soothing, like the waves coming in on a beach."