Using wind turbines to power almost 7,000 homes
Getting renewable energy inspiration from Ontario’s first wind community
Miranda Fuller looks over the 10 turbines on Gunn’s Hill Wind Farm in southwestern Ontario’s Oxford County, a lush region of farmland and small cities between London and Kitchener. “They’re magical!” she says.
The project, which started running in late 2016 and now produces enough electricity to power some 6,700 local homes, is Ontario’s first community-sponsored wind farm. If the word “magical” is not wholly accurate — the turbines are no illusion, after all — it does capture some of Gunn’s Hill’s uniqueness. From many points of view, it’s an extraordinary undertaking.
Fuller, 25, grew up in Ingersoll, in Oxford County, and, after studying environmental ethics at nearby Wilfrid Laurier University, became communications director at the Oxford Community Energy Co-operative, one of the organizations that gave Gunn’s Hill life. Other key partners were the Six Nations of the Grand River and project developer Prowind Canada Inc.
She tells me the co-op of just 180 members raised a staggering $9 million — much of it from investments of $1,000 to $10,000 by individuals living in the county. Ron Seftel, CEO of investor Bullfrog Power says, “Local folks put in a ton of work” to make Gunn’s Hill possible. Today, almost half its bonds and shares, 49 per cent, are in the hands of Oxford residents and businesses. Community-based yet wonderfully ambitious, it is the largest renewable energy co-op project to gain approval in Ontario. It’s also Canada’s first wind initiative to feature both co-op and Indigenous ownership.
Beyond its size — it will supply 15 per cent of Oxford’s 100 per cent renewable electricity goal — it creates a bond between citizens and their power generation.
“Too often, people are cut off from their power supply,” Fuller says. “It’s important to see your energy source. Seeing the turbines helps you connect with the energy you’re using.”
Living close to the windmills — and in some cases gaining employment from them — gives locals a stake in the system and makes them more likely to support pro-renewable public policy. Gunn’s Hill also helps conserve agricultural land.
A case in point is the Start family, who joined the coop partly because they’ve run a farm for six generations and want to protect it from developers.
The family’s connection to their land is intimate. Among the acres of wheat and corn, there’s a newly planted butterfly habitat between solar arrays.
The wind turbines are underwritten by 20-year contracts: putting them on the Starts’ property means it can’t be paved for at least two decades.
“We’re very close to an urban centre that will feel development pressure,” says David Start, referring to the growing City of Woodstock. “We’re at the junction of [highways] 403 and 401, two main corridors. And I believe the turbines will actually help protect this land and our woodlot for future generations, for local food production.”
The project wasn’t without obstacles. During its development, Fuller recalls, “Some locals didn’t support it. But since it was built, we’re not seeing much push back.”
One piece of information that diminishes opposition is the fact that wind turbines offer residents income.
“Local people’s investment in wind does ease contention,” Fuller says.
Fuller, now executive director at the co-op, doesn’t hesitate to offer advice to other municipalities contemplating local power projects: “Be prepared to be surprised by the community’s passion for renewables.”
A look at the wind turbines and solar panels in Gunn’s Hill