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Solar farm backers get paddled for claiming Indigenous support

Starwood Energy Group is sent back to the drawing board after prematurely claiming its proposed energy project is backed by First Nations
File photo of Ronald A. Irwin Civic Centre

Representatives of a Connecticut-based private equity investment firm got their backsides paddled at Monday's city council meeting for prematurely claiming First Nations support for a proposed 445-hectare hybrid energy facility near Sault Ste. Marie Airport.

"We take consultation with Indigenous partners in Sault Ste. Marie very seriously," newly elected Ward 3 Coun. Angela Caputo told representatives for the Starwood Energy Group solar farm/battery energy storage proposal.

"Saying that you have someone's approval to try and sway a council... is really serious. At the next meeting, if you're able to come, I would really like to see clearly if you have support, or if we're just going to take that out," Caputo said.

As SooToday reported over the weekend, a slide deck prepared for Monday's city council meeting stated in bold, underlined lettering: "The project currently has the support of PUC Inc. and First Nations."

But representatives for the Starwood Energy Group proposal had little evidence to support those claims when challenged by city councillors, who were also concerned about secrecy surrounding the project's exact location.

"We are right now working with Missanabie Cree," said Starwood vice president Anik Gandhi, who added: "And then we intend to reach out to Batchewana and Garden River bands. We have provided them with information on the project similar to what we've provided you guys as well."

Asked then whether Missanabie Cree First Nation has given full support, Gandhi said: "I can't define it as full support right now. We don't have anything officially in writing but we're working with them to obtain that."

"So I'm not clear," said Ward 5's Corey Gardi. "Have you gotten consent or support from Batchewana First Nation and Garden River First Nation? Yes or no?"

"No. We have not gotten consent," Gandhi replied.

"We have a number of First Nations communities in our area," Coun. Gardi said. "I don't feel that what you stated and underlined in your presentation is an accurate representation of the support that you had. That's playing a big part in the reason why I won't be supporting this."

Ward 5 Coun. Matthew Scott said he "absolutely" supports the concept of renewable energy, but he needed more information before he could support the Starwood project.

Ward 2's Lisa Vezeau-Allen asked about Starwood's claim to having PUC support for its proposal.

"I don't believe we have something in writing, but we've been in discussions with them," said Rob Reid from N-Sci Technologies Inc., which provides electrical engineering services.

"We're currently working on an LOI [letter of intent] with them," Gandhi added.

"At this point, I'm not voting in support of this," Vezeau-Allen said, advising the company to get formalized letters of support from both PUC and First Nations.

"When you come to council and say you have support – support in theory, whether it's a conversation or a handshake, is not a formalized support that we can read and understand," she said.  

Reid said Starwood hasn't yet acquired land needed for its project but has purchase option agreements.

"Please don't underestimate the value of the partnerships we have with our Indigenous communities around us," said Ward 1 Coun. Sonny Spina. "That is something that is very important to our community and to this council clearly. We take that very seriously."

Ward 1 Coun. Sandra Hollingsworth, a pilot, said she felt uncomfortable supporting the Starwood proposal until she was satisfied it won't adversely affect present and future operations at Sault Ste. Marie airport.

Councillors agreed to postpone voting on a request to support the project until Starwood comes back with additional information.

Malcolm White, the city's chief administrative officer, and Ward 2 Coun. Luke Dufour emphasized that the support sought from city council was solely for ranking purposes of the Independent Electricity System Operator, that all applications are very early-stage and there will be many other parts of the approval process before Starwood's project can become a reality.

Starwood says it intends to hold community consultations about its initiative in January.

Interestingly, a similar but smaller application for a battery energy storage facility on McNabb St., from Alectra Energy Solutions in partnership with Convergent Energy + Power, won city council approval in just minutes Monday night

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David Helwig

About the Author: David Helwig

David Helwig's journalism career spans seven decades beginning in the 1960s. His work has been recognized with national and international awards.
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