Ill winds

Is local opposition to wind turbines based on concern for wildlife or property values?

by Douglas Hunter

One of the most vexatious aspects of the effort to reduce our collective carbon footprint is the way we generate electricity. Although wind power may well be the most cost-effective, zero-emissions generator, it has also proven to be the most controversial in this province, and the argument always comes back to this central question: Will harnessing the green power of spinning turbine blades mean making a mess of our green spaces?

The Ontario Power Authority (OPA) has made wind power the most important component of the province’s renewable energy strategy. Wind farms (as multiple installations of turbines are known) account for 72 percent of all contracted renewable generating capacity under its Standard Offer Program. Nevertheless, the allegations that opponents hurl against wind farms are seemingly endless. Certainly, legitimate performance issues exist. Energy Probe (a charitable nonprofit organization) released a six-month study in 2006 showing that Ontario’s wind-power installations were performing well below production expectations, averaging 22.3 percent of their rated capacity.

Apart from Energy Probe’s concerns, which can be alleviated, the alleged crimes and misdemeanours include bird strikes, noise from the rotating blades and turbines, and even health concerns attributed to ultra low frequency sounds. And where local opposition to installations has arisen, there appears to be a schism along class lines, between rural and urban, and between local residents (as well as First Nation bands) who would benefit from leasing land for wind farms and vacation property owners who consider these 21st-century windmills a blight on the landscape that lowers property values.

Tiny Township on southeastern Georgian Bay is one such locus of cottager opposition. The Federation of Tiny Township Shoreline Associations has been casting a wary eye on the Robitaille Farm Wind Park, a modest six-turbine project selected by OPA for development in 2005, which is currently at the provincial and federal environmental assessment stage. The Coalition of Residents Tiny (CORT) has mounted more strident opposition. CORT is among eight local citizens’ groups affiliated with a new Massachusetts-based nonprofit lobby group called National Wind Watch, which clearly doesn’t want what it calls “industrial wind power,” also described as a “destructive boondoggle,” anywhere, onshore or offshore.

There are genuine issues surrounding the siting of wind farms: the appropriate setbacks from residential areas to minimize noise (such as there is), the possible impact on migratory birds and other species such as bats (which has not deterred the National Audubon Society and its local chapters in the United States from supporting carefully planned and sited wind energy projects), the intrusion on natural areas by service access roads, the clearing of trees and the like. Wind turbines do not belong where they could disrupt vulnerable ecosystems.

But many wind farm opponents simply don’t want to look at them. “Unsightly” is a popular adjective. The Georgian Bay Association (GBA), an umbrella organization for cottage associations on the bay’s eastern shore, has mounted a thoughtful (and mostly successful) opposition to the construction of wind turbines in what is a UN World Biosphere Reserve. That said, the GBA has honed in on aesthetics as a principal objection, and superimposed a wind turbine onto a photograph of a Group of Seven painting.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, however. To many people, the turbines are pleasingly sculptural and a heartening image of a commitment to producing zero-emissions energy. Recently I solicited opinions from people who have experience with these installations, both on land and water. While they voiced various concerns, people generally approved of wind farms.

Americans were among the most enthusiastic. Wrote a woman in Texas: “We are absolutely in favor of the wind farms. We saw lots of them around west Texas in ranchland. Now there is one slated for offshore Galveston, where we now live … We need all the renewable energy sources we can exploit, so we need to learn to compensate for the changes in our lifestyle.” Another individual who lives next to a Wyoming installation advised the NIMBY crowd to “clean up your backyard first, then you’ll have some standing in the matter. Anyone burning 35 kilowatt hours per day of electricity is in no position to pick and choose his provenance.”

Ultimately, a wind turbine is literally what is on the horizon if we don’t figure out how to rein in or otherwise sate our energy appetite. And the places we’ll have to build them may sometimes be the places we’d rather not be disturbing.

douglas_hunterDouglas Hunter’s latest book is God’s Mercies: Rivalry, Betrayal, and the Dream of Discovery. He also maintains the website sweetwatercruising.com, which tracks environmental issues for boaters on Georgian Bay and the North Channel.

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