Megawatts of Protest on Georgian Bay

words & photos :: Colin Field. 

On a blizzardy December 11, 2019, the Meaford & St. Vincent Community Centre was over capacity. They were forced to shut the doors to people wanting in. Inside, a dozen or so TC Energy (formerly TransCanada Corporation) employees were presenting their proposed pumped storage project at the Department of National Defence (DND) 4th Canadian Division Training Centre (locally known as the Meaford Tank Range) while well over 350 locals and concerned citizens talked about the idea. The general feeling wasn’t positive; locals aren’t happy about this proposal.

Heckled by the otherwise respectful crowd, TC Energy’s business development director for the project, John Mikkelsen, presented a slideshow of the proposal to sporadic jeers and taunts not to build it. But he never wavered. There was dead silence when he finished his speech. Not a single person clapped. 

So what was it all about? It’s complicated. We’ll try to whittle it down. TC Energy wants to build a pumped storage project at the Tank Range. What’s a pumped storage project? Great question. It’s easiest to think of it as a giant battery. As there are fluctuations in power usage throughout the day, TC Energy can use off-peak, surplus power from the grid to pump water upwards. Gaining nearly 150 metres of elevation, this water will fill a massive reservoir; in essence, charging the battery. During times of high power usage, when the grid is struggling to meet demand, this water from the upper reservoir runs back down the pipes and through turbines to create energy, which feeds back into the grid. It’s not a completely lossless system, as slightly more energy is used to pump the water upwards than is created, but it is one of the more efficient ways to store energy at this point. 

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Protester’s sign, December 11, 2019, Meaford & St. Vincent Community Centre. Photo: Colin Field

 

These massive projects can be closed-loop or open-loop. Closed loop systems use the same water over and over again, going from a lower reservoir to an upper reservoir. An open-loop system takes from an open body of water, pumps up to an upper reservoir, then dumps the water back. There are more than 100 pumped storage facilities, with over 1,000 megawatts of power potential, throughout the world (some are under construction). Currently about 43 of those are operating in the US. The United States hasn’t built many since the early 1980s and the country that’s building the majority of them these days is China. The largest facility in the world is in Virginia and can generate up to 3,003 megawatts. It’s a closed-loop system. 

Completing this project would help balance Ontario’s power generation with power usage. Currently power can’t be stored efficiently and on such a large scale; it’s created and used instantly. If there is surplus energy it’s sold to other markets (i.e., other provinces or the US) at a loss, or in some cases, dumped (by spilling water over the dams, putting the brakes on turbines, or taking nuclear power plants offline). Being able to store energy would allow TC Energy to store this energy instead of dumping it, then put it back into the grid when needed. 

The project TC Energy is proposing is a 1,000-megawatt, open-loop system. It would provide 1,000 megawatts for 8 hours, or as TC Energy claims, enough power for a million Ontarians for 8 hours. The upper reservoir is 375 acres and 20 metres deep with a capacity of about 20 million cubic metres. That’s 20 billion litres of water. It’s predicted this system will run through its cycle every 36 hours; so it’ll take 20 billion litres out of the Bay, then dump it back in again every 36 hours. Their engineers tell us light and sound pollution will be minimal. Any disturbance to the Bay will be, to use TC Energy’s word, “mitigated.” A surprising word to choose, as the word literally means to lessen the gravity of an offense or mistake. 

Of course the power will need to come from somewhere to pump the water up and go somewhere as the water flows down; this will require high-voltage power lines either on the bottom of the Bay, or through overhead towers. The plan is to use the Essa Transformer Station near Barrie as a conduit. TC Energy has not finalized a transmission route yet. 

  It is claimed there will be 800 jobs during the five years of construction and once operational (in 2027) the plant will support about 20 jobs and run for 50 years. The estimated project construction cost is $3.3 billion.

The Players

Currently in the feasibility-study stage, the first organization that needs to approve the project is the DND. They haven’t yet. They need to decide whether they can continue to train on the base with the pumped storage facility on the property. According to Peter Crain, Director General of Portfolio Requirements for the DND, the DND would sell the piece of property to TC Energy at “market value.”

This is land that was expropriated from local farmers back in 1942. The Canadian government took this land on the premise it would be used to help train the military for World War II.

“Much discussion took place amongst the landowners affected, and many felt that the government was not offering enough money for their properties, which had now suddenly become valuable,” says the Grey Roots Archive article Home on the Range. “It was rumoured that without co-operation, the required land would simply be expropriated. This rumour held true and the expropriate plan was filed at the North Grey Registry Office on July 21, 1942, making the land the property of His Majesty the King.”

“The final expropriation encompassed approximately 17,350 acres, affecting 150 farms, four schools and three churches. Also affected were seasonal cottages, hunting cabins, two small summer hotels, two Rotary Camps, while cemeteries were simply left untouched and maintained by the army.”

How can the government of Canada expropriate property from local farmers in 1942, only to turn around and sell it 77 years later? This question was yelled from the back of the crowd that cold night in Meaford. The DND didn’t provide an answer.

If the DND decides this project can go forward, then it’ll be up to TC Energy to get their approvals done and continue on their feasibility study. If the DND decides the project shouldn’t go forward, then you’re wasting your time reading this and I’m wasting my time writing it.

TC Energy owns and/or operates projects throughout North America that include natural gas pipelines, oil pipelines and several power generation facilities (nuclear and natural gas). TC Energy is 48 percent owner of Bruce Power. They own and operate the Keystone Pipeline (which, according to CBC, spilled 1.4 million litres of crude oil in North Dakota in late October). TC Energy first approached the DND with this idea in 2017. They say the property is ideal; it has a good elevation change, access to tonnes of water, and there are no private properties on the land.

Because this property is the traditional land of the Saugeen Ojibway Nation (SON), they’re also involved. As the SON land claim against the Government of Canada continues, they’re up for an $80 billion settlement. Their land claim includes the Bruce Peninsula and a water claim that stretches from Goderich up to Tobermory and back down to Wasaga Beach. TC Energy wasted no time in approaching SON for approval on this project. An online document available to the public entitled Proposed TC Energy Pumped Storage Project in the SON Territory stated TC Energy has proposed SON partner as part owners of the project. It also states: “In a letter from TC Energy to the Chiefs (October 2019), TC Energy committed that it would not construct the project unless they had the support of SON.”  This same document states, “The SON Environment Office will begin to plan our environmental and archaeological assessment work in Spring 2020.”

SON didn’t respond to any of ML’s requests for interviews, but have made it clear to other groups that they are doing their own studies on this project and will not be influenced by outside sources. 

The last people notified about this project were the locals, many of whom only discovered TC Energy’s plan in late August 2019. People directly affected, like those living in Kiowana Beach, have now organized into the group Save Our Georgian Bay. They’re an angry bunch and probably rightly so. The closest private property is a mere 700 metres from the proposed project. Nearby residents will also have to deal with years of construction. Concerned about property values dropping, ecosystem destruction and the unknowns involved with such large-scale change to the otherwise pristine shoreline, this group is making a lot of noise and are vehemently opposed to the proposal. “It’s a massive scar on the face of the earth during construction for four years,” says one concerned resident. “They rip the face of the earth off to install this facility. There’s a cobble layer on the surface, but under the cobble is clay. You disturb that clay and the water is turbid for miles and days at a time.” 

Case Study

A similar pumped storage facility on the Great Lakes is in Ludington, Michigan. It generates a maximum of 1872 megawatts. It’s an open-loop system. And because it’s on one of the Great Lakes, it is probably the best example of the system TC Energy is proposing. TC Energy literature says of the Ludington project: “It is similar in functionality and, like our project, utilizes one of the Great Lakes as a reservoir,” and “We will integrate modern technology in the design and operation of the facility.”

So how successful is the Ludington project?

Well, it has certainly managed to create power. Running since 1973, the plant went through a major upgrade in 2015, replacing parts and renewing efficiency. The 27 million gallon upper reservoir has run its initial 50-year license and recently received another 50-year license to continue operations.

But the fish kill created by the plant is significant. It’s claimed the plant killed 150 million fish yearly. The National Wildlife Federation first filed a complaint with the federal government in 1982, charging the plant with violating their operating license by killing large numbers of fish. A 12-year legal battle ensued between environmental groups as well as state and federal agencies against the co-owners of the power plant, Consumers Power Co. (now Consumers Energy) and Detroit Edison Co. The complex settlement led to the creation of the Great Lakes Fishery Trust, the installation of a seasonal two-kilometre-long net to reduce future losses of fish, compensation for past damage to fish, and payments for unavoidable future losses that will occur. Those nets can only be used during the warmer months of the year when there’s no ice on the Bay, so it’s claimed the plant continues to kill millions of fish per year. 

 

Protesters, December 11, 2019, Meaford & St. Vincent Community Centre. Photo: Colin Field

 

On that cold blustery night in Meaford, TC Energy’s John Mikkelsen continued to espouse the benefits of this project. Saying this is a great climate change initiative, he also mentioned the added benefit that this project will save Ontario ratepayers $250 million a year (at the current population that’s $17 each per year). But the crowd’s simmering anger wasn’t quelled.  

Outside, Bruce Rodgers, one of the members of Save Our Georgian Bay, debated the project endlessly. An engineer that has worked in environmental consulting, he’s adamant this is bad for the town and the Bay itself. “I’ve worked in consulting in my 30-year career and most of it is involved with large industrial projects like this,” says Rodgers. “So I’m very familiar with the legislation and the technical requirements of such a project. I’m always on the other side of the coin, where I’m working for industry to work through this process. This is the first time I’ve been on the side of the concerned public. In my professional life, we’re trying to help industry do the right thing. This is a case where I’m seeing an industry doing something that makes no sense whatsoever from an environmental perspective. They fabricate a story around carbon emissions and, ‘isn’t this wonderful for the planet, aren’t they being good corporate citizens,’ but then their whole approach about it is not green at all. Reducing carbon emissions and killing a million fish is not green.” 

“They say it’s a 50-year project life, but nobody will ever remove that plant,” he continues. “This will be there forever. The pyramids have been there for thousands of years, and the Meaford pumped storage plant will be there for thousands of years, too. But it won’t be operating, because the technology will be obsolete.”

Whether you’re for or against the project, the fact the info night brought out over 350 people is telling. It’s a contentious subject. If you want to learn more, TC Energy will be hosting community open houses on January 16 and January 23 at the Meaford & St. Vincent Community Centre. If you can’t make it, their side of the story can be found at tcenergy.com/pumpedstorage. For the other side of the coin check out savegeorgianbay.ca.

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