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TILLSONBURG, ONT – In a huge factory on the outskirts of Tillsonburg, the transformation of Ontario’s manufacturing economy is under way.
Here, in what was once a Magna International auto parts plant, German industrial conglomerate Siemens AG is building giant wind turbine blades, massive components formed from fibreglass, epoxy and balsa wood that are half the length of a football field. About 350 workers mould, bake and trim the huge blades, which are shipped to wind farms throughout Southern Ontario.
The plant’s car-parts past is both symbolic and significant. As the province’s traditional – largely automotive – manufacturing sector shrinks, the Liberal government has attempted to hasten a shift to green technology. The 2009 Green Energy Act (GEA), in particular, was designed to achieve this end – along with weaning the province off dirty, coal-fired electricity production.
By subsidizing wind, solar and other technologies, and forcing developers to buy components and services from local companies, a clean manufacturing sector would be kick-started. At least that was the theory. On the surface, the plan appears to have worked. The province is now sprinkled with green businesses that have – at least in part – replaced some of the collapsing manufacturing infrastructure.
About 130 kilometres due east of Tillsonburg, in Welland, another German-owned entity, Senvion Canada, has set up its own wind turbine blade plant. It employs about 140 people and produces 45-metre-long blades out of a former steel tube factory.
In Guelph, in a highly automated factory that once housed a metallurgical chemical company, Canadian Solar Inc. churns out solar panels that are shipped all over North America. A companion plant down the road in London makes solar modules and power components.
South Korean-owned CS Wind Canada Inc. is making wind turbine towers in Windsor, while Italian-based Silfab Solar Inc. makes solar panels in Mississauga, just outside Toronto.
Other companies as far afield as Sault Ste. Marie, Windsor, Carleton Place and Napanee are churning out solar panels and the racking systems that hold them, inverters that turn direct current into alternating current, and all manner of other components for green power systems.
The key question is whether the green manufacturing business is here to stay.
Critics say Ontario’s green energy policies have actually driven manufacturing out of the province, because they have contributed to higher electricity prices. And the rules requiring developers to buy local no longer apply, thanks to a decision by the World Trade Organization following complaints from Japan and the European Union. That means domestic manufacturers must sink or swim on their own merits and compete with imported products, or look to export markets to make ends meet.
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