Wind wars

How we can live with turbines without wrecking the wilderness.

By Anne Bell
Illustration by Marco Cibola


Nature conservationists and green-energy advocates, so often allies in the battle to preserve the natural world, are finding themselves in opposition to each other on an increasingly important issue: the spread of wind farms across the province and their deadly impact on birds and bats. As the controversy heats up, more and more frequently people ask me about Ontario Nature’s position. Our organization strongly supports the production of energy from clean, renewable sources such as wind. But the location of wind turbines is a key concern for us. These projects need to be sited, configured and operated to minimize their negative effect on wildlife – to keep the green in green energy.

This seemingly reasonable position places Ontario Nature squarely in the crossfire of both those who passionately support and those who vehemently oppose wind farm development. How can this be? Is there no common ground?

I believe there is, but we’ll have a hard time finding it unless we’re willing to examine the facts from different angles. A case in point is the Wolfe Island wind farm near Kingston, where 86 turbines began producing electricity last year. From July to December, the turbines killed 602 birds and 1,270 bats. Over those six months, the average number of birds killed per turbine was seven – much higher than the industry average of one to two birds per turbine annually. These fatalities are perhaps not surprising: the project is located in a globally significant Important Bird Area.

How do we make sense of these facts? From a naturalist’s perspective, the numbers are alarming, especially considering Ontario’s efforts to expedite the development of wind power. If we multiply the Wolfe Island deaths by the number of wind farms throughout the province – or, indeed, throughout North America – the potential cumulative impact is nightmarish. It makes it very easy to understand why naturalists are screaming about wind projects being proposed within or next to other Important Bird Areas, such as Point Pelee in Essex County and Ostrander Point in Prince Edward County.

From a green-energy perspective, however, the bird and bat mortality at wind farms pales in comparison to the widespread and devastating consequences of society’s continued reliance on fossil fuels, and even on other forms of renewable energy. A 2009 study by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority compared the risks to wildlife from six types of energy generation: coal, oil, natural gas, nuclear, hydro and wind. Based on a life-cycle analysis that considered extraction, transportation, facility construction and decommissioning, and power generation and transmission, wind power stood out prominently as being the most benign.

Another comparative study, published last year in Energy & Environmental Science, took a broader environmental perspective and, in addition to the effect on wildlife, considered carbon dioxide emissions, the footprint area in water or on land, water consumption, and water and thermal pollution. The researchers examined 12 forms of electricity generation, including solar, wind, geothermal, hydroelectric, wave, tidal and ethanol. Wind outranked all other forms, having the lowest impact overall.

Add to these studies the estimate, published in 2008, that every degree of global warming will lead to the extinction of between 100 and 500 bird species worldwide, and it becomes clear that something must be done, and quickly, about the way we produce and consume energy.

We should begin, of course, with energy conservation. That means recognizing society’s thirst for cheap, bountiful energy as a problem and making conservation the cornerstone of every green-energy plan. But unless we are willing and able to do without electricity altogether, we will need to make choices. If we simply say no to wind farms, we need to recognize that this implies saying yes to other, potentially more harmful forms of energy.

My hope is that naturalists and green-energy advocates will come together to work out more nuanced responses to the choices we face. This means taking the time needed to assess the potential impact of wind farms. We could prohibit development in Important Bird Areas and other significant wildlife habitats and shut down turbines at critical times of the day or during migration, when birds and bats are most vulnerable. But it also means moving forward with a sense of urgency and committing to immediate measures to reduce society’s reliance on fossil fuels. There is no time to waste.

Anne Bell is Ontario Nature’s senior director of conservation and education.


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  1. Connie Caldwell Connie Caldwell
    March 16, 2012    

    Great article. I am looking for the environmental/ecological impact of bat extinction in the Point Pelee area. Capstone is the company responsible for building the turbines and my paper needs information about the consequences of low bat population. Can you direct me to some articles about this? Thank you very much.

  2. Kenneth Kenneth
    August 2, 2012    

    As the article states, wind power causes the least mortality compared to other causes. Absolutely turbines need to be correctly located to reduce bird and bat deaths. Other than that, I consider them as graceful giants, they are a visible connection to the rest of the planet and an exciting look at the future.

  3. Colette McLean Colette McLean
    October 12, 2012    

    The problem with Ontario Nature’s stance is the presumption that wind has some kind of equivalency to other conventional forms of energy. It takes over 3000 turbines to replace ONE nuclear reactor and that is not even correct because what do you use when wind is not blowing. As it stands now and for the next several decades, it is fossil fuels. Because of winds intermittent, inefficient, unreliable, non-dispatchable, highly variable generation NG and coal are needed to back up wind (&solar), therefore claiming that comparative studies show that wind outranked all other forms of energy by having the smallest carbon footprint completely ignores the fossil fuel backup requirement. It also does not include the understanding of studies done in the BPA area of the U.S. where wind was shown to actually increases GHG emissions due to fossil fuels having to ramp up and down, reducing their efficiency, resulting in more emissions. I would suggest Ontario Nature start questionning the value and viability of so-called solution like wind energy and start assessing to see if can technically, environmentally and economically meet our energy problems. After 6 years of researching the issue I have yet to find the empirical data that shows wind will do anything other than address the feel good arguments surrounding supposed “green” energies like wind.

  4. Melodie Burkett Melodie Burkett
    October 12, 2012    

    Are you kidding me? Did you too drink the Green Kool-Aid?

    Everyone now knows that wind turbines cause MORE emissions because they require gas or coal plants to run hot at the ready for when the wind does not blow. Wind power simply does not reduce emissions and it displaces wldlife ..even earth worms! Europe has learned the hard way and the people are protesting. There are over 483 coalitions against wind in Europe. EPAW..European Platform Against Wind. The people who like the turbines are just driving by. They have no idea what it is like to have your home devalued or totally unsellable. They have no idea what it feels like to have to live with the thumping 24/7. The farmers that signed up are under a gag order not to say anything negative about wind turbines yet some have spoken up. Over 90 rural municpalities have demanded a moratorium. McGuinty cares not as he does not need the rural vote to stay in power. Wind turbines have not and will not provide the jobs that were predicted. Companies are leaving Ontario, where they can enjoy more competative pricing for power. Conserve energy? Yes but why don’t the urban areas set the example and shut off some lights. We like the dark in rural Ontario.. Cities seem to want the night time as bright as day. People say that tall buildings kill birds or that cats kill birds. When was the last time you saw a cat kill a hawk, vulture or an eagle??? EPAW puts out video’s of swans .. dead underneath a wind turbine. This whole wind turbine experiment has been a massive failure on all fronts. 1000’s of turbines in Europe and still no reducton of emissions. In fact Germany has put in 23 new coal plants! How is that taking us off fossil fuels. And China? A new coal plant every week! Do you think gas is clean? Think again..the particlants are smaller and are wet. This same money invested in truly green technologies would have done something positive for the world. Green has become the false God of the day. Don’t fall for it. DO YOUR HOMEWORK.

  5. October 12, 2012    

    So nature lovers are finally waking up to the reality that this Wind Development is having negative effects on wildlife!
    That didn’t take long……..what?…….only about 4 years?
    Have any of you folks noticed how big your electricity bills have become? Have none of you folks read any reports how many families have had to vacate their homes due to ill health, lost births in their livestock and the social breakdown in the small towns across Western Ontario that host these Industrial nightmares?
    Part time nature lovers can’t comprehend the long term nightmare that exists in the full-time resident’s lives who live year round in Rural Ontario.
    This of course is a start…..but Boy oh Boy do you folks ever have to get up to speed fast before Rural Ontario isn’t fit for any species to live in!!!!!!!!!!

  6. October 12, 2012    

    Don’t you people think its about time you pulled your collective heads out of the sand. Wind power is about money and only money.
    Windmills are ancient technology and has proved to be totally inept in almost every application right back to the old testament and more recently electrical generation. Wind power is unreliable,inefficient,expensive,not dispatchable and does not reduce Co2 emissions. Furthermore it is nothing more than a nuisance add on to the grid and has not replaced any coal fired station anywhere in the world. In Ontario we are replacing coal station with natural gas stations- another fossil fuel.
    Note that there are 1200 new coal fired station on the drawing boards across the world plus many more under construction , many in N.America and 26 in Germany – why do you think this is. If wind power or solar cut the mustard do you think countries would be building coal fired stations
    Please do not be so naive and gullible, take the time to read independent and I repeat independent information and like thousands of others you will soon learn the truth about the wind power lie.

  7. Jane Zednik Jane Zednik
    October 12, 2012    

    How we can live with turbines without wrecking the wilderness.” The answer clearly is we can’t. There are 600 applications before the MNR for energy plants. There are energy projects planned for the Bruce Peninsula and the Oak Ridges Moraine. A wind project to be built of the Moraine consists of 7 minute, that’s 7 minute bird studies. That’s it.
    No one is accounting for the cumulative effect of these large scale wind power plants. If 10,000 nuclear power plants were planned to be constructed throughout the province, there would be no hesitancy on the part of Ontario Nature to ring alarm bells loud and clear.

    Wind energy is reliant on fossil fuels for its existence and as back-up for its energy production. Any form of infrastructure placed in sensitive ecosystems is destructive. It frightens and amazes me that Ontario Nature would find the possible extinction of species of wildlife as acceptable.

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  9. Jayne Finn Jayne Finn
    March 1, 2014    

    There should be lots of information from Quebec where there are thousands of turbines. I’ve seen statements that towers need to be located on level ground, prime locations, but installations in Quebec prove that that isn’t true. There are surely many more places that would work without being in areas that endanger wildlife. In the meantime there is as much information proving that wind energy is ecologically sound as not. Quebec has embraced wind energy to the extant that one site is a major tourist attraction…Éole Cap-Chat, a vertical turbine.

    In the meantime I hope all wildlife champions will sound off against domestic and feral cats at large…by FAR the biggest danger to birds and other creatures.

  1. Keep wind turbines out of Important Bird Areas | Ontario Nature's wildlife blog on June 25, 2013 at 7:05 pm

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