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Siemens Canada: Tillsonburg plant that employs 300 may face bleak future amid ominous warning signs

By Megan Stacey, Randy Richmond, The London Free Press

About 300 workers at the Siemens wind turbine plant in Tillsonburg have been called to a meeting Tuesday. Siemens officials couldn't be reached Monday for comment about the future of the plant, one of the town’s biggest private employers. (Bruce Chessell/Postmedia News)

About 300 workers at the Siemens wind turbine plant in Tillsonburg have been called to a meeting Tuesday. Siemens officials couldn't be reached Monday for comment about the future of the plant, one of the town’s biggest private employers. (Bruce Chessell/Postmedia News)

Tillsonburg is teetering on the edge of losing 300 jobs at one of its largest employers.

The closing or temporary shutdown of Siemens Canada’s wind turbine blade plant in the Southwestern Ontario town would also raise questions about the fallout from Ontario’s controversial green energy policy.

Rumours of some kind of looming shutdown or closing at Siemens, one of four green energy plants lured to Ontario under a controversial multibillion-dollar provincial deal with Korean industrial giant Samsung, began a few weeks ago and intensified during the weekend.

A four-year Siemens employee said workers who called the plant’s sick line during the weekend were told there was no ­production Monday and were to attend a morning meeting  today at the town community centre. 

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“It was the joke around there that they were just going to lock the doors, but we didn’t think it was going to happen,” said the man, who did not want to give his name.

Workers who showed up at the plant for the midnight shift Sunday found the doors locked and called security, said another employee.

They were played a recording saying production was halted and they were required to attend Tuesday’s meeting.

“They got locked out! With no notice! It’s very scary for us,” the worker said in an email.

Other workers who showed up Monday morning for their shifts were given a paper telling them the same thing, said a worker.

One employee said they’d heard earlier the plant would shut down in July.

“It’s not really a big surprise,” said the employee, who asked not to be identified.

A company notice obtained by The London Free Press requires employees to attend a 10 a.m. meeting at the Tillsonburg Community Centre, but provides no other details.

The meeting — and what it might mean for workers and the town — comes almost a year after the province pulled the plug on major new green energy projects.

Ontario — where electricity prices have basically doubled over the last decade, and where the energy file has become hugely political heading into next year’s election — had started the process to contract for an additional 600 megawatts of wind energy, requiring construction of about a dozen new wind farms.

But amid rising criticism and after reports indicated that Ontario will have enough generation capacity for at least a decade, the Liberal government suspended plans for new projects in September.

Projects already in development weren’t affected.

“Clearly, the Liberal government should be working to build and promote our manufacturing sector — not set up situations where we’re losing these jobs,” said MPP Peter Tabuns, the NDP energy critic at Queen’s Park.

“There seems to be a growing disinterest on the part of the Liberals to actually invest in green energy. I think that may well lock us out of where the rest of the world is going in terms of energy technology,” said the Toronto MPP.

Conservative energy critic Todd Smith, the MPP for Prince Edward Hastings, couldn’t be reached for comment.

Energy Minister Glenn Thibeault’s office said, in a written statement, “the province has no comment on what is only speculation at this time.”

The Canadian Wind Energy Association (CanWea), an industry umbrella group, says the market remains healthy in Ontario, regardless of the news from Siemens.

Despite the province’s decision last fall to suspend new projects, there are orders to fill in Ontario and bids for projects in Alberta and Saskatchewan, said Brandy Giannetta, CanWea’s Ontario regional director.

“The outlook is positive,” Giannetta said, declining to comment on the Siemens situation specifically.

Tillsonburg Mayor Stephen Molnar refused to comment before information is shared with employees.

“I’m not prepared, nor would I be responsible, to make any comment in advance of the meeting.”

In 2010, four plants to make parts for wind and energy farms were set up under the Samsung deal between the company and the province to generate power for Ontario and create manufacturing jobs in green energy.

The four plants were to create about 900 jobs.

In exchange, Ontario agreed to buy heavily-subsidized power from Samsung wind and solar projects and guarantee the company space on the province’s crowded electricity transmission grid.

The Liberal government, sharply criticized over the cost of the agreement, later renegotiated it after the company missed some deadlines, slashing by more than one-third the nearly $10 billion in power it had agreed to buy and reducing to $5 billion from $7 billion Samsung’s investment commitment.

While wind energy has its supporters, fierce opposition in rural communities — especially in Southwestern Ontario, home to the largest number of wind turbines in Ontario and the largest wind farms — remains and helped defeat two prominent Liberal cabinet ministers in the region in the 2011 election.

Much of the opposition has focused on the loss of local control, taken away by the province, over where the mega-projects can be built.

With files from Dale Carruthers, The London Free Press

rrichmond@postmedia.com

mstacey@postmedia.com

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How we got here

2003: Liberals elected; vow to close Ontario’s dirty coal-fired power plants.

2009: Liberals plunge headlong into green energy, with a law that takes away local control over projects. Producers are signed up to long-term contracts, some paying 10 times what consumers pay for power.

2010: Multi-billion-dollar green energy deal signed with Korean industrial giant Samsung.

2011: Backlash takes down Liberal ministers in two Southwestern Ontario ridings.

2014: Coal-fired plants shut down, years later than planned.

2015: Auditor general reports Ontarians have paid $37 billion more than market prices for power over eight years. Ontario reaches 2,300 operating wind turbines.

2016: Contracts awarded for another 300 megawatts of wind power, process begun to buy another 600 megawatts. Government scraps 10-per-cent subsidy on power bills, but eight months later announces other relief.

2017: Large renewable energy buys suspended; smaller projects continue.

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The deal

In 2010, under a multibillion-dollar agreement with the province, Samsung announced four plants to supply the wind and solar energy market would be built in Ontario.

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The plants

London: Solar modules, about 200 jobs originally expected, partnering with Canadian Solar.

Windsor: Wind turbine towers, about 300 jobs, partnering with CS Wind.

Tillsonburg: Wind turbine blades, about 300 jobs, partnering with Siemens.

Toronto: Solar inverters, about 200 jobs, partnering with SMA.