Fenelon Fall’s dual-purpose power station

Fenelon Falls Hydroelectric

The lure of Fenelon Falls is its waterfall, where the Trent-Severn Waterway drops from Cameron Lake to Sturgeon Lake.

Here are the dam and locks that control water levels west to Lake Simcoe, and allow tourists to continue their sail from Trenton and the Bay of Quinte to Georgian Bay.

The falls are gentle, stretching about 50 metres in an almost-horseshoe, and dropping about three metres in curving cascades of white water.

For generations, they have inspired pleasure among visitors. I know they did with me. I hung over a railing beside the falls, musing on their beauty. Then I had lunch in town. Bought a book. Picked up a chelsea bun at the local bakery. The village, and its 1,800 residents, depends largely on tourists like me.

A hundred years ago, a grist mill stood at the side of the falls. Later it became a small electricity generating station. In 1971 the station was torn down because Ontario Hydro offered electricity at cheaper rates.

Now, a quarter-century later, there’s a new generating station on the site, and it’s obvious that a great deal of care has been taken to make it blend in with the falls. The facade is limestone, cut from the same river bed and set by a local stone mason; the surrounding grounds are attractively landscaped; the building hunkers nicely into the side of the gorge, barely rising above the level of the bridge that crosses the falls; and there are two platforms, one below the other, from which the falls can be viewed.

The result is a building that caters to tourists while it goes about the business of creating electricity.

For Rob Macdonald, that dual, interlocking purpose is the stuff of sustainability.  Creating renewable energy is essential, but so is strengthening communities, he says.

So, in addition to being mindful of the tourist trade in designing the building, $2 million of the $4.9-million cost of the station was spent in the community, and there is an agreement to pay Fenelon Falls $45,000 a year out of profits. In addition, the station will be sold to the village for $2 after 25 years.

Macdonald is an associate professor in the Faculty of Environmental Studies at York University, in Toronto, and a director of Shaman Power Corp., the private company that owns the station. The station is in its first year of operation and is designed to run for 100 years. At times of peak water flow, it will supply the equivalent of half the electricity needs of the village.

« A lot of businesses want to come in only to scoop out profits,’’ says Marina McLennan. « But Shaman has a commitment to the community. You don’t often see that.’’ McLennan has a flower shop on the main street. She’s a former reeve of Fenelon Falls.

The key people in Shaman met in Africa where they were helping Kenya develop a national energy policy. Macdonald was there along with representatives of Ontario Hydro and the Ontario Ministry of Energy.

On their return to Canada, they found Ontario Hydro downsizing. Several of the Hydro representatives took early retirement and began seeking ways to bring sustainable energy projects to Ontario. Shaman is their answer.

There are 25 shareholders who each put up $25,000 to $50,000, and an energy company that invested $250,000 — enough to cover 20 per cent of the construction costs. The rest of the money for the project was borrowed.

It’ll be a while before Shaman sees a profit. But over the 25 years that it will own the station, the return on investment to shareholders is expected to average 15 per cent a year — a modest return given the expectation of inflation and the risk of dry weather, low water levels, and restricted outputs of electricity.

Shaman is a great model for the future. But whether others can follow, and whether other communities will benefit from similar projects, will depend on the new rules for electricity generation that are being formulated right now.

 

NEXT WEEK: The new rules

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