Wind-Turbines

More than four years ago I was among a large group of people, mostly members of the local community, who stood in the damp chill of a late fall day in a farmer’s field south of Lion’s Head and celebrated the start-up of the Bruce Peninsula’s first large-scale wind turbine generating electricity for the Ontario power grid. As the huge blades of the towering, made-in-Denmark, $3 million, Vesta Turbine pulsed overhead with the characteristic “swish”ing sound associated with them, we were told it could generate enough electricity to power a community the size of Lion’s Head, population 500.

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Back then there wasn’t a disparaging word being uttered about wind turbines, certainly among those on hand that day, not at the site itself beside Highway 6, nor later at the reception at the Rotary Hall in Lion’s Head. We warmed up with coffee, tea and snacks and listened to the speeches extolling the virtues of wind-generated electricity as a wonderfully benign, “green” form of energy that surely needed to be greatly expanded in Ontario. I think it’s fair to say, those of us in the local, peninsula community that day shared a feeling of pride about being in the vanguard of the brave, new world of large-scale alternate energy production in Ontario, and even Canada. Other parts of the world, Europe especially, were way ahead of us with wind energy. But we were finally getting started, and the sky literally was the limit. Why shouldn’t Ontario be a big player in the wind-power industry?

But that was then, and this is now. Since then hundreds of wind turbines in dozens of wind farms have already sprung up in Ontario. And so have “Stop the Wind Turbines” signs on lawns in small-town, rural Ontario where representatives of wind-energy companies have been crisscrossing the countryside in hopes of persuading property owners to sign leases for future wind-farm development on their land.

The groundswell of opposition to wind-energy appears to be growing rapidly, largely on the basis of anecdotal evidence that people living near Ontario’s many new wind turbines are indeed suffering ill effects, like anxiety, headaches and insomnia. That’s despite the Ontario government’s claim that there’s no scientific proof in the “available” literature that wind-turbines cause health problems.

As recently as May of last year, Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Arlene King, in response to the growing public concerns about the alleged adverse health effects of wind turbines, did a review and came up with a report that largely backed the government’s position.

“The review concludes that while some people living near wind turbines report symptoms such as dizziness, headaches, and sleep disturbance, the scientific evidence available to date does not demonstrate a direct causal link between wind turbine noise and adverse health effects,” King’s report says. “The sound level from wind turbines at common residential setbacks is not sufficient to cause hearing impairment or other direct health effects, although some people may find it annoying.”

The report added, “The sound was annoying only to a small percentage of the exposed people; approximately 4 to 10 per cent were very annoyed at sound levels between 35 and 45 (decibels). Annoyance was strongly correlated with individual perceptions of wind turbines. Negative attitudes, such as an aversion to the visual impact of wind turbines on the landscape, were associated with increased annoyance, while positive attitudes, such as direct economic benefit from wind turbines, were associated with decreased annoyance.’

King’s report was not critical of the government’s minimum, 550-metre setback requirement for turbines from homes. It pointed out the setback distance increases with the number of turbines being built.

The report has done nothing to reassure wind opponents. If anything it may have put more wind in their sails with its references to “available” scientific literature, underlining the lack of it.

The all-important setback regulation is now facing a serious court challenge, brought by Ian Hanna, a wind-energy opponent in the Prince Edward County area. He is claiming the province failed to consult with medical experts. If the action is successful, further wind-energy development could be stopped.

It seems clear enough now Premier Dalton McGuinty and his Liberal government got caught up in the initial “green” enthusiasm that surrounded wind turbines, like the central Bruce Peninsula community did more than four years ago. I suppose that’s just human nature. But unlike a small community that could hardly imagine anything wrong with anything so apparently benign as wind-energy, the Ontario government had a responsibility to take a much closer look before making large-scale, wind energy the centerpiece of its Green Energy Act.

Unfortunately, the well-meaning McGuinty government has backed itself into a corner by, first, promising to shut down coal-fired generating plants, and then rushing to choose big wind development as the way to fill the gap.

This is an election year, and it’s already pretty obvious the McGuinty government is fighting for its life. To admit it made a mistake, that it moved to quickly to catch the wind, and now declare a moratorium on further wind-turbine development until the health effects issue is clarified by further study may be political suicide. Or not. It could also be construed as honest and courageous. We’re all human, after all, Dalton, so take heart; all is not lost. Do the right thing.

Meanwhile, there are other eggs that could be put in Ontario’s green energy basket, like more emphasis on home-based, small or medium-sized solar or solar/wind hybrid systems, with incentives. There could be a lot of advantages to that approach, including for local economies, but I’ll have to talk about them next week.

Originally published in The Sun Times in 2011.

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