To many people, the idea of opposing a wind energy development seems ludicrous. Wind farms, from their name up, conjure a compelling mix of pastoral and futuristic images: verdant fields and iconic, shining white structures often described as sleek and elegant. They are used to symbolize the growing sustainability and environmental movement. When Barrack Obama made wind energy a noticeable part of his platform during the 2008 election campaign, it seemed to epitomize his appeal: fresh, forward-looking, and idealistic, but practical and serious at the same time.
It is against this backdrop that a Toronto-based company, Horizon Wind Inc., recently announced their intention to build an 18-turbine facility in Thunder Bay. The company is looking to lease a 17,000 acre property on the Nor’Wester mountain range neighbouring the Loch Lomond ski hill. They say the development, named the “Big Thunder Wind Park”, will power 9,000 Thunder Bay homes.
A rough estimation of Thunder Bay’s energy situation puts the city’s potential generation around 1500 megawatts. Of that, hydro makes up about 700 mW, coal 525 mW, and natural gas 150 mW. With the McGuinty government’s plan to phase out coal by 2014, potential generation would be reduced to around 900 mW – still almost twice the peak energy use, which sits just over 500 mW.
The proposed wind project has divided many of the residents of Thunder Bay. While a facebook page supporting it has drawn over a thousand fans, but it has equally generated concerns and an organized resistance.
Wind’s green cred means that critics of wind projects often get pigeonholed as paranoid, anti-environment wingnuts. Meeting with some of the opponents of the Big Thunder project is enough to dispel this preconception. Anna Marchese, a member of the Nor’Wester Mountain Escarpment Protection Committee, lives near the proposed development with her family. Like many other critics of industrial wind power, she initially welcomed the idea.
“At first, neighbours called [with concerns], but I didn’t think anything of it. I thought, so? It’s a windmill. Nothing to worry about. After two or three phone calls, I thought maybe I should start digging around. I went on the computer, I started asking other neighbours, I started asking my husband’s doctors.” What Marchese’s digging unearthed was surprising. Wind farms face a slew of criticisms on financial, technical, political, health-related, and even environmental grounds.
Wind energy is certainly more expensive than conventional energy; the province pays producers 13.5 cents per kilowatt-hour, compared to the average provincial cost of about 6 cents. “Wind and solar are great sources: they’re green, they’re clean. But they can be expensive,” says City Councilor Larry Hebert, who served as General Manager of Thunder Bay Hydro for 20 years.
“Ontario is very encouraging, under its programs, to get into those things, but there’s a cost to pay – and that’s starting to come home with the hydro bills that are coming out. It’s shown on the bills as ‘Provincial Benefit’ right now, and there’s a number of things that go into it, but one of them is the cost of green energy.”
Of course, factoring in “external costs” – the incalculable social and environmental costs associated with fossil fuels – may well justify this added expense. The city of Thunder Bay will receive $275,000 in taxes if the wind park land lease is approved. If so, it will be the first wind farm in Ontario on municipal lands – usually they are located on privately-owned agricultural land. On the flipside, critics counter that this sum will be counter-balanced by a drop in tax revenue with the possible devaluation of the homes near the wind farm.
The technical criticisms of wind power mostly focus on its unreliability. Birbal Singh, a Lakehead professor of Mechanical Engineering, explains the dilemma: “You cannot design a power plant for the normal demand;” rather, it must be designed for peak capacity. “The problem with wind is, if you want to guarantee 10 mW, you have to design for 100 mW, because sometimes it’s only running at %10 capacity. With oil and natural gas, if you want 10 mW, you get 10 mW, guaranteed.”
This unpredictability means that other sources of power will still be required as backups. Some charge that the resulting fluctuation in output on the part of the backup sources makes them less efficient, resulting in increased carbon emissions and energy use. In the case of the Horizon project, with its potential generation of 27 mW, this compensation would be minimal. This could, however, become an issue in the future.
Singh brings up a neglected angle in the wind debate: our energy expectations. Growing up in India gives him a different perspective on the issue. “Back home, we get electricity for three hours a day, and that’s not even guaranteed. People are used to that. Here, if you supply people three hours of electricity – first thing, they will freeze to death. But even in the summer, nobody will tolerate that. Wind power in India is increasing, and it’s a great idea. People are happy to get three hours a day.”
The recently-passed Ontario Green Energy and Economy Act (usually referred to simply as the Green Energy Act) has stirred some controversy, especially with municipal authorities. The Act gives the province increased power over energy issues, at the expense of municipalities.
“They took away meaningful local input from the community,” says City Councilor Linda Rydholm. “So now we’re in a situation where the province has changed the rules; now approval for this energy project rests between the company and the province.”
Health concerns surrounding wind farms may be the most divisive of the criticisms of wind farms. People who have lived in close proximity to wind turbines sometimes claim effects including heart arrhythmia, headaches, stress, and loss of sleep; however, there is a paucity of scientific evidence to back up these claims. Wind’s critics say that there simply has not been sufficient time to study these issues; defenders counter that anecdotal evidence is insufficient, and that health complaints are either psycho-somatic or attempts for fiscal compensation from wind companies.
Horizon is unequivocal in its dismissal of this anecdotal evidence. In a 2008 Media and Councillor Information Kit, they state: “In over twenty-five years and with more than 68,000 turbines installed around the world, no member of the public has ever been harmed by wind turbines.”
The health effects, if valid, stem from the noise generated by the rotation of the propellers. In the case of large turbines, like those proposed at Big Thunder, low-frequency sound is generated – often low enough that it falls below the human level of audibility. It is possible that the repetitive vibrations from the turbines disturb human health.
Says Marchese: “Doctors are not agreeing; some are saying it can’t make people sick, some are saying it can. Our position is that, if you don’t know, then you invoke the precautionary principle and you do a third-party study to find out.”
Currently, Ontario requires turbines to be a minimum of 550 metres from residences. Other jurisdictions have pegged the distance (known as “setback”) anywhere from 300 metres to 1.5 km. Marchese calls the legitimacy of the province’s number into question. “Ontario studied [setback distances] 18 months ago, but noone knows what reason they have for that distance.”
The Nor’Wester Mountain Escarpment Protection Committee believes the proposed Big Thunder wind park is not as eco-friendly as it is marketed to be. They allege that the $75 million project will devastate the landscape with access roads and construction, threatening the structural integrity of the mountain and the health of the watershed, as well as posing a danger to birds and bats.
In a letter to the Chronicle-Journal, Lakehead President Fred Gilbert – never hesitant to voice an unpopular opinion – puts himself squarely in this camp. “The Nor‘Wester location is an ecologically sensitive area representing the northernmost extension of the Great Lakes Hardwood Forest, with attendant species not found elsewhere in Northwestern Ontario…
“The potential for habitat impact in an ecologically sensitive area is high with the Horizon Wind Inc. development and should have been considered seriously. It is now too late for sober second thought but city council ‘blew’ this one!”
However, some are more skeptical of these claims. Dr. Philip Fralick, professor of Geology at Lakehead, dismisses the concerns about the Nor’wester’s structural integrity, pointing out that the weight of the turbines is miniscule compared to that of the mountain, even considering that it is made up of relatively “light” rock.
Notwithstanding the numerous concerns brought forward by its opponents, Big Thunder wind park Project Developer Nhung Nguyen believes that the proximity of the turbines to people’s homes is the real sticking point. “I think all of the concerns about wind projects really boil down to setback distances,” she says. This is one thing upon which Horizon and its critics can seemingly agree.
“That’s our concern,” Marchese . “If you move [the turbines] away from people, it doesn’t interrupt their view-shed, it doesn’t interfere with their health, they’re not going to [contaminate] the water, they’re not going to destroy the mountain. If you put them further back, it’s problem solved.”
So is there any chance Horizon will compromise on this decisive issue? The company is set to make an announcement on Wednesday, April 7th that Nguyen hopes will satisfy those who are concerned about the project.
“We’ve been really thinking about all of people’s comments. So next week, we’re going to be making an announcement,” she says. “We think that this will be a good response to people’s concerns.”
Will this mysterious response involve changes to Horizon’s contentious plans, or simply a rhetorical volley with the company’s critics? “It will be a modification of the plans,” Nguyen confirms. “With this change to the proposal, we hope that we’re being very accommodating. As to whether [those opposed to the project] will be satisfied with it, I can’t speak to that. But I can certainly say that we’ve tried our best.”
Although Nguyen could not reveal what that “modification of plans” will entail, the most obvious possibility is to move back the turbines closest to homes in the area – some will be within about 600 metres. This week could see the resolution of the conflict over this energy development – stay tuned.