Bob Baranski and his wife Kathy spent a decade planning their retirement dream home. They saved money, canvassed home shows and pored over designs. Never in doubt was its location — on the pristine shores of Georgian Bay, where they have owned land for 40 years.
Last summer, after spending most of their retirement savings, only finishing touches remained to fully realize their dream — a spacious two-storey home with large windows facing the turquoise expanse of the bay.
The couple looked forward to moving to their Meaford bayside property full time from their home in Fergus, Ont.
“It’s a gorgeous spot,” says Baranski, an energetic 70-year-old watching snowfall turn his property into a winter postcard on a February morning.
The first ominous sign came at the end of last summer, when he found a neighbour’s handwritten note taped to his front door: “It said, ‘Did you know there’s going to be a power plant next door?’ ” Baranski recalls. “That got my attention.”
When he learned the size and general design of the project, he felt his retirement dream shatter, and feared for the shoreline’s environment and natural beauty.
“We’re devastated,” says Baranski, who co-owns a company that makes pallets and crates. He estimates the main section of the proposed plant will be 500 metres from his home, and its large transformer station and high-tension wires much closer.
“Everything that we have strived for in our life, all that we built and looked forward to, is going to be basically destroyed.”
If approved, TC Energy’s $3.3 billion “pumped storage” hydro facility would easily be one of the biggest industrial developments Georgian Bay has ever seen — and the Save Georgian Bay residents group has been formed to stop it. The group’s online petition to stop the hydro proposal has been signed by more than 23,800 people — an impressive figure given the population of Meaford is 11,000.
TC Energy — the Calgary-based company building the controversial Coastal GasLink natural gas pipeline in B.C. — stresses it’s still studying the feasibility of the project and has yet to conduct environmental impact studies or finalize the facility’s design.
Company documents note that at night, when demand and cost of electricity is low, gigantic intake pipes will suck 20 million cubic metres of water from the bay, using 1,000 megawatts for 11 continuous hours to fill a reservoir almost two kilometres away, on a plateau 150 metres above the shore.
The pumped water — equal to the amount rushing over Niagara Falls during a two-hour period — would be flushed back down through turbines to create electricity when demand and price are high. TC Energy expects this pumping and flushing loop to be repeated pretty much daily.
John Mikkelsen, the company’s director of power business development, calls the facility “a clean energy project.” It works like a gigantic battery, storing energy in the reservoir until needed.
Ontario has a surplus of power at night, forcing exports to the U.S. or other provinces — some 14 terawatts in 2016 — at cut-rate prices, TC Energy says. But in peak daytime hours, it runs gas-fired facilities to meet the higher demand.
Flushing the proposed hydro facility’s reservoir when energy is most needed would create 1,000 megawatts of continuous electricity for eight hours, enough to fuel almost one million homes for that length of time, Mikkelsen says.
Filling the reservoir requires more energy than created when emptying it. But the company points to an economic assessment by the Navigant consulting firm, commissioned by TC Energy, which estimates the facility would reduce the need for gas-fired energy and lower CO2 emissions by 490,000 tonnes per year — equal to removing 150,000 cars from the roads.
“If you’re concerned about climate change, I think this project is something you’re very interested in,” Mikkelsen says in an interview, adding that $250 million would be saved annually through a more efficient electrical system.
If given the green light after federal and provincial impact assessments — including on the environment and Indigenous treaty rights — the company expects construction to require 800 workers, take four years, and be completed by 2028.
How the project would work
The first hurdle is the Department of National Defence. The company hopes to build the facility, including the reservoir, on Meaford’s military base — the 4th Canadian Division Training Centre.
The department is consulting Indigenous groups and local residents until July 31. It will then decide whether giving up 3 to 5 per cent of its base would seriously disrupt military training, which includes firing machine guns and tanks. It’s assessing whether the training on that piece of land can be moved, says Peter Crain, DND’s director portfolio requirements, whose team plans infrastructure for Canada’s military bases.
If DND can’t accommodate TC Energy’s proposal, “then everything stops,” Crain says.
The other group with veto power is the Saugeen Ojibway Nation, which has a long-standing claim on unceded land and water that includes the Bruce Peninsula, the area between Goderich and Collingwood, and part of Georgian Bay and Lake Huron.
In an October 2019 letter to SON chiefs, TC Energy executive vice-president François Poirier stated the company won’t start construction “unless the Saugeen Ojibway nation is supportive of the project.” He offered a “commercial partnership”; Mikkelsen says it would likely be part-ownership of the facility.
In an information sheet for community members, SON’s chiefs and councils cited as risks the potential impact on water flow, Indigenous cultural and archeological sites, and fish. (Whitefish is important to SON’s commercial fishery.) Part-ownership, however, “would mean a significant financial benefit for the communities,” the chiefs added.
Greg Nadjiwon, chief of the Chippewas of Nawash Unceded First Nation — one of two Indigenous communities that make up SON — says in an interview it’s too early to say if SON will be on board. But anything that reduces reliance on nuclear plants is worth considering, he adds. (SON recently rejected an Ontario Power Generation proposal, and $150 million, for an underground nuclear waste storage site at the Bruce nuclear plant on Lake Huron.)
Bob Baranski’s property ends where the military base begins. He sometimes hears heavy machine-gun fire and explosions during training, but Georgian Bay’s beauty more than makes up for that.
He notes TC Energy hasn’t calculated the “enormous” greenhouse gas emissions that will be produced to build its facility. And he dreads the blasting, digging and kicked-up dirt the four-year construction will cause.
“It will pretty much be uninhabitable,” he says of his dream home. “I’m not a young man anymore and those four years are precious to us.”
He imagines with alarm the continuous noise and bright security lights of the plant when it’s finally running, and the impact the constant pumping and flushing will have on fish and the bay’s crystal-clear waters.
“What TCE is proposing will forever impact the Georgian Bay and Niagara Escarpment,” the Save Georgian Bay petition says. “Fish spawning habitat will be replaced with massive stone breakwaters and concrete structures.
“Bird habitat and nesting areas will be destroyed along the pipeline and transmission corridors. The clarity of the water that makes this area of Georgian Bay so beautiful will become turbid with silt and clay by the endless ebb and flow of water to and from the plant.”
Mikkelsen says engineers are working on design solutions for residents’ concerns. “We won’t build this project unless it’s environmentally acceptable,” he says.
TC Energy says its $100 billion worth of assets, including pipelines and energy facilities, directly produced 13.5 million tonnes of CO2 greenhouse gas emissions in 2018. It points to the proposed project as an example of its commitment to reduce such emissions. But Bruce Rodgers is skeptical.
“They’re painting a nice, greenwashed story to get people to buy into the argument,” says Rodgers, who owns a four-season cottage near the proposed site and is CEO of an environmental consulting firm.
Rodgers, a member of Save Georgian Bay, describes the proposed facility as “a huge vacuum sucking everything up,” adding that whitefish spawn where the company will put its intake pipes. “The fish mortality could be huge.”
He notes the proposal is based on a 1,785-megawatt facility that began operating in 1972 on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan, near Ludington, Mich.
A landmark study in 1980 — a baseline for mitigation requirements by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in the U.S. — estimated that the plant’s six intake pipes sucked up and killed 532 million fish annually. About 99 per cent of the fish killed were larval and juvenile fish.
The deadly vacuuming process is technically called entrainment.
“The change in pressure essentially ruptures the fish,” says Mike Shriberg, Great Lakes regional executive director for the Virginia-based National Wildlife Federation. “It’s not a pretty thing.”
The shocking level of fish kills resulted in the federation and other environmental groups filing complaints with the regulator in 1982 and, later, a lawsuit against the plant’s owners, Consumers Energy Co. and DTE Electric Co. The state of Michigan also sued, seeking compensation for fish loss.
Under order of the regulator, the utilities have installed — during non-winter months since 1989 — an almost four-kilometre, semicircular net in front of the intake pipes to reduce the number of fish sucked up.
Legal battles ended in a 1995 settlement. The companies paid $5 million (U.S.) to set up the Great Lakes Fisheries Trust and a scientific advisory team. Consumers Energy also gave the trust 10,000 acres of land it had planned to use for another pumped storage plant.
“Given the extensive environmental damage, they realized they would never get a facility like that permitted again in Michigan,” says Mark Coscarelli, manager of the Great Lakes Fisheries Trust.
The settlement also includes annual payments by the utilities to the trust for estimated fish losses — a total of about $55 million (U.S.) so far. In 2019, the utilities paid $2.4 million (U.S.) in compensation.
The trust made another $20 million (U.S.) by selling the 10,000 acres — 70 per cent became part of a national forest. Over the years, it has granted almost $90 million to programs mitigating fish loss.
The profitable Michigan plant received a new 50-year licence in June. It followed an agreement for utilities to continue mitigation efforts and annual payments for fish losses.
The U.S. regulator and other agencies involved with the Michigan plant are unable to say how many fish are killed annually since the net was installed. However, studies suggest the net has significantly reduced entrainment of larger fish while it’s in place during non-winter months.
For Shriberg, it’s one thing to renew the licence for an existing pumped storage plant, quite another to build one today.
“I wouldn’t place good money on 50-year-old technology to be the thing that we need for the next 50 years to store energy,” says Shriberg. “Given the advances in battery storage and other ways to store power, it seems very unwise to invest in something that’s got such a big impact on the ecology and scenery of a place that’s as spectacular and fragile and unique as Georgian Bay.” (The biggest lithium-ion battery in the world is a 100-megawatt one in Australia, which can power 30,000 homes for one hour. Bigger ones are being designed.)
He also argues that a different design, known as a “closed loop” pump storage system, is far more environmentally friendly. That design uses two reservoirs — an upper and lower one — and continually pumps and flushes the same water between them rather than sucking up water from the lake or bay.
Mikkelsen told the Star a closed-loop system is one of the designs being considered. But in a reply to residents’ questions — which remains on the company’s website — TC Energy makes clear that option has been discarded because it reduces the project’s benefits.
Mikkelsen discourages comparisons with the Michigan plant, arguing technology and environmental standards have greatly improved in 50 years. The company notes the U.S. has more than 30 pumped storage facilities, and OPG has a 174-megawatt one in Niagara Falls, built in 1957.
For his part, Coscarelli of the fisheries trust sees the Ludington plant as an uncomfortable tradeoff between the advantages of clean energy and the deadly impact on fish. “We’re not crazy about it,” he says. “But we sleep better at night knowing we’re doing what we can to minimize the damages while compensating for those that we can’t do anything about.”