People Both For and Against Wind Energy Should Take a Deep Breath

Just when I thought I was maybe morphing into a bear (stay out of sight, avoid contact with humans, get lots of rest), along comes this wind turbine thing on the Bruce Peninsula. By “thing” I mean a huge wind farm, maybe more than one, that has several wind-turbine developers knocking on doors and competing to get landowners on the upper peninsula to sign away a lot of control over their land. Where, just a few years ago, there appeared to be unqualified support for the construction of a first wind turbine by a locally-based company, Skygeneration, and then another two, now suddenly there’s conflict and controversy: full-page ads in a local paper, competing letters to the editor, “Stop the Wind Turbines” signs on lawns, meetings where people quickly lose their cool and end up shouting.

“Green,” by the way, has become a kind of sacred cow in Ontario where the current Liberal government has decided that wind-turbine generated renewable energy is so beyond question that the normal processes of development approval involving municipalities hearing the concerns of their residents can be put aside in favour of a “streamlined” process that puts all the power in the province’s hands. As a result municipalities now have no right to say yea or nay to certain conditions, like how far a wind turbine should be from my, or your, home. That’s called a “setback.” The regulations attached to Ontario’s recently enacted Green Energy Act say a minimum of 550 metres is okay. Is it? Not according to one person I talked to this week who lives near one of the three existing wind turbines on the Eastnor Flats in the Municipality of the Northern Bruce Peninsula.

First I have to explain that, after living 30 years in this community, I’ve learned local people born and raised in the area are often hesitant to talk openly “in the paper” about local issues. They don’t want to offend their neighbours or get a reputation for being a trouble-maker. They’d just as soon mind their own business. Newcomers, so-called, tend to be more outspoken, but they’re not the only ones suddenly worried about the impact on the natural and human environment of 60 to 80 towering wind turbines springing up along Highway 6 on the Eastnor and somewhat smaller Lindsay Flats.

One born-and-raised local woman I talked to said she and her husband were told seven years ago before the first turbine was erected near their property that the sound of the huge turbine blades turning in the wind would be “soothing” and quiet.

“Well, it’s not soothing,” said the woman, who didn’t want to be named. It’s an “aggravating” whooshing noise that just goes on and on when the wind is blowing on the windy Flats, she said. “It’s aggravating, just deeply aggravating to listen to that whooshing noise.”

“Yes and no,” she said, when I asked if the noise of the blades keeps her awake at night. Yes, in the summer when the windows are open, but not so much in the winter when they’re closed.

Lack of sleep is one of the symptoms associated with what’s now being called “wind turbine syndrome.” So far there’s been no definitive study to determine that wind turbines do indeed cause health problems, but the weight of anecdotal evidence based on the unhappy and unhealthy experiences of people who live near existing wind farms is growing fast and, to my mind, becoming  impossible to ignore.

Another woman I spoke to agreed with the first that the 550-metre setback was not enough. “It should be at least a mile, or at least three times the distance, “she said. She also preferred not to be named.

The second woman, also born and raised in the area on a local farm, said she was visited by representatives from two wind turbine development companies who wanted her to sign leases giving them the right to build and operate wind turbines on her property. One was Preneal Canada Inc., a company operating out of New Brunswick, with a parent company based in Spain. The woman said she refused to sign because, among other things, the lease appeared heavily weighted in favour of Preneal. “It seems they take control of your property,” she said. One clause in particular that bothered her required the property owner to waive their right to object to “nuisance” associated with the operation of wind turbines such as “increased noise levels and other possible effects” resulting from the construction and operation of the turbines.

That strikes me as a questionable clause for people to agree to, at a time when the “effects” of wind turbine operation on human health, and other creatures for that matter, are not as yet well understood.

The women I spoke to, and others raising concerns about wind-farm development on the Bruce also rightly point out that 60 to 80 turbines will have a big visual impact on the beauty of the natural landscape that is the area’s major claim to fame, and arguably the basis of its vitally important tourist industry. Personally, I don’t have a problem with the way they look in that context. But beauty is after all in the eye of the beholder.

The development interest in the wind-energy potential of the upper peninsula just started getting a lot of public attention this year; but it actually goes back to 2007, when the Ontario Power Authority, a provincial government agency, identified the Bruce Peninsula as one of several areas in the province suitable for major wind-farm development. However, new transmission lines first have to be built, and, if approved, that multi-million-dollar project will take several years to complete. The OPA said that work should begin this year, but so far there are no shovels in the ground. So, the actual development of wind turbines is probably years away.

In the meantime, all interested parties, including the province, wind energy companies, and people both for and against wind energy should take a deep breath, and then do all they can to use the time wisely, and calmly, to answer as fairly and fully as possible the important questions now being raised.

I admit I was one of those people in the community seven years ago who virtually took it for granted that wind turbines are a good thing, renewable energy, and all that. That appears to be the province’s position now. But it should still be wide open for inquiry and discussion.

Originally published in The Sun Times in 2009.


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