Faces of Wind: Joyce McLean

Wednesday, December 19th, 2012

“I know it’s a tired cliche, but we must re-double our efforts for our kids.  Climate change is real.  It’s happening now.”

– Joyce McLean, Toronto Hydro Corporation

Welcome to Faces of Wind – the first in a new series of profiles highlighting individuals who are leading the charge in the renewable energy industry. For our first feature we spoke with Joyce McLean, a veteran of the environmental and energy sectors.

Currently Director of Strategic Issues at Toronto Hydro Corporation, Joyce has a 14-year history with Toronto Hydro.  She has worked tirelessly and with the utmost integrity for almost 30 years in the environmental and energy fields as a policy and communications professional.

Here Joyce shares her thoughts and reflections on wind energy’s past, present and future.

Q. This December the Ex Turbine will celebrate its 10th Anniversary. Billed as North America’s first urban wind turbine, it is viewed by millions of people every month. As one of the pioneers who helped make this dream a reality, what are you most proud of when you pass by the Ex Turbine?

I’m very proud that Toronto Hydro and WindShare were able to form a co-operative partnership to complete a project no one else had done anywhere in Canada before this.  The unique relationship between the City of Toronto’s electric utility and a community-based renewable energy co-operative set a precedent and provided momentum for a community power movement in this country.  We didn’t understand the approval and policy path we had to follow when we began but a committed group of strong-willed people along with some fabulous political support resulted in what some call the most visible wind turbine in Canada.  Now when I drive by 10 years later and see it spinning it makes me extremely proud that we were able to accomplish an early win for the wind sector in Ontario.

Q. Ontario stepped forward in 2009 as a North American leader in clean energy with its Green Energy Act. This also brought renewable energy from the margins to centre stage in terms of the public discourse. How will the past three years influence the future of renewables in Ontario?

Renewable energy is rapidly becoming part of the mainstream energy supply in Ontario.  The agencies that govern the electricity business in Ontario are becoming more familiar with the characteristics of renewable energy on both the transmission and distribution grids and are able to balance the power needs with the intermittency of these sources.  As other jurisdictions adjust their policies to embrace even more renewable energy, so too will Ontario.  Renewable energy delivers good quality jobs, community benefits, emissions-free electricity and a way to combat anticipated climate change impacts in Ontario and across Canada all at a very reasonable price.  Wind energy is now price-competitive with other forms of new generation.

Q. Canada does not have a national energy strategy and there has been endless debate about pricing carbon. How can the wind industry best position itself as a win-win for governments who also want to take advantage of natural gas and oil developments?

The wind industry is uniquely positioned to assist with electricity supply plans that take into account their carbon footprint.  Wind doesn’t produce emissions, use water, or generate waste – in short it’s a clean air technology.  As this national debate continues to evolve, carbon credit schemes with an embedded declining cap may well afford wind its rightful place in the national climate change debate – it is a stable element in a long term reliable electricity system.  As much of the utility world in Canada will need to retool given aging infrastructure in the coming years, and as the existing labour pool retires, the new components of installed infrastructure will take into account two-way power needs as our society demands it (electric vehicles, smart meters etc.);  these changes will also be driven in part by younger people, stepping into decision making roles in electricity companies across the country, many of whom no doubt critical of our national lacklustre positioning on climate change.

Q. Those opposed to wind energy development may be in the minority, but they have created a lot of noise and spread a lot of misinformation. You personally have been at the front of this debate and experienced hostilities at public events. How did this affect you? Did it change your views?

I acted as the policy and communications advocate for Toronto Hydro’s offshore wind farm proposal in Lake Ontario during the 5+ years that we worked on this responsible initiative to provide green electricity to the city of Toronto and help reduce local greenhouse gases.  There was indeed a small, very vocal group of anti-wind citizens who made it very difficult on a personal level.  The attacks became increasingly focussed on me and my two colleagues rather than on the ideas behind the proposal. It was frankly very disheartening.  Our personal integrity was questioned and I was called a liar publicly.  It was hard to take.  When I look back now I see that they won the first round – offshore wind is under a ban in Ontario at the moment.  My perspective is that we were just ahead of our time.  There is no doubt in my mind that offshore wind in Canada will gain acceptance as we continue to grow our southern Canadian urban centres along the Great Lakes/St Lawrence basin – an area ripe for offshore wind developments.  The economic opportunities created by offshore and onshore wind developments are now starting to be realized by our neighbours in the US Great Lakes states as many policy makers believe that wind jobs can replace those in the former auto sector which suffered a serious downturn during the recession.  US projects are moving ahead.  Ontario, which went from being a leader in this area to a dead stop, will eventually catch up.

Q.   Energy has always been a political issue, but it seems to becoming more and more of a win-loss, right-vs.-left equation both here and in other countries. How did we get here? How do we move forward?

The politicization of energy and electricity in particular is baffling to me.  Everyone in the political and public realm recognizes that electricity underpins how our society functions.  There are a whole lot of very smart people who run our system and produce electricity, yet it’s been used as a public policy tool for as long as most of us can remember.  Think back to Adam Beck, the founder of public power – he certainly recognized it as a public policy tool but somehow his intentions were clearer than what we all observe today, across the political spectrum.  One of the reasons I contend this has become the case, is that the average person does not understand how the system works and is not engaged in any meaningful discussion except to say no to new generation or rate increases, and to yell very loudly when their lights aren’t working.  Otherwise they truly don’t seem to care.  The only way I see that changing is with unbiased education materials coming from the government, and our children being taught about the electricity system in school.  It can be a very interesting subject!

Q. Wind energy enjoys very high general public support as a form of electricity generation, yet in some communities has faced the same sort of organized opposition that gas plants have faced. What has the industry learned from this?

Many early wind advocates were true believers, passionate about wind power who found themselves deeply shocked when their wind vision was rejected by neighbours and community leaders.  Counting myself among those, we saw it and see it as a moral decision and the right technology to support.  Clearly others see it differently.  I hope the industry has learned that we can’t explain, communicate, advocate, educate and listen enough on this topic.  Given people’s general lack of knowledge about the electricity system overall, it’s no surprise that many are rejecting a new technology.  Remember that while you may heard the same concerns a hundred times, a lot of citizens have never encountered wind energy and have sincere questions about what it does or doesn’t do.  Patience will reward those who deliberately help people through their questions and concerns.

Q. You were Chair of the CanWEA Board for two terms during a period of significant change and growth within the industry. What are you most proud of when you look back on your contribution?

My tenure as Chair of CanWEA was during a time of immense growth in the sector across Canada.  I’m proud to have helped professionalize the association by instituting a fair compensation package for staff, and adding structure to the administration of CanWEA.  In addition, I pushed hard for target setting (result was CanWEA’s WindVision 2025 document – CanWEA believes wind energy can satisfy 20 percent of Canada’s electricity demand by 2025), for snappy, eye-catching communications materials that members could use regardless of locale in the country and developing a sense of the benefits of membership in CanWEA.  When I first joined the board, our annual conference was in Pincher Creek, Alberta with about 400 attendees.  The 2012 conference attracted 2000 delegates. That growth has been very gratifying to me as I witness new wind projects move forward in every jurisdiction in Canada.

Q. A new report from the Global Wind Energy Council and Greenpeace suggests that wind power could provide as much as 11.7 to 12.6 percent of the world’s electric needs, resulting in CO2 emission reductions of almost 1.7 billion tons. Look into your crystal ball. Where do you see wind energy five years from now in Canada? Ten years?

This is all about politics and public will.  Until we actually start comparing the true costs of electricity supply, technology by technology, our electricity system is going to remain with the same basic makeup we’re in now.  We know that wind can compete favourably against every other type of electricity generation today, yet governments and utilities are still choosing polluting sources of supply over clean technologies such as hydro-power, wind and solar.  Kick-starting the idea of Friends of Wind and letting advocates and neighbours move this agenda forward will continue to be a critical step in gaining the hearts and minds of decision-makers in all jurisdictions. I know it’s a tired cliche, but we must re-double our efforts for our kids.  Climate change is real.  It’s happening now.  Extreme weather events are occurring in every corner of Canada.  Wind energy is not the only solution to this problem obviously, but it’s a responsible step – along with conservation, efficiency, green buildings, standard setting and other renewable supply – that our system planners and funders must take, if we’re to hold our heads high as Canadians again and be proud of our environmental legacy. I hope I see this is my lifetime.

  • Interview compiled by Chris Forrest, Vice-President Communications & Public Affairs (CanWEA)