Migratory birds and bats bludgeoned to death in flight. The movement of ungulates such as elk and threatened caribou disrupted. Wild wind-swept mountain tops – the ‘Beautiful’ in B.C. – despoiled by massive industrial infrastructure.
Sound like green energy? These are among the concerns being raised over wind energy, even as the province’s Environmental Assessment Office gives the green light to Dokie Wind Energy Inc. to build B.C.’s first wind farm near Chetwynd.
“We still have concerns,” confirmed Linda Sullivan, senior program officer for the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency, which has been working with B.C. officials.
“Where there is wind, there are birds. There is a greater number of migratory birds in that particular area.”
In August B.C.’s Environmental Assessment Office awarded Dokie environmental certification for a planned 300-megawatt wind farm on ridges 40 kilometres west of Chetwynd, concluding the project “would have no significant adverse environmental, social or health effects on the surrounding area.”
Among Dokie’s conditions of certification are two years of post-construction monitoring for birds and bats, preparation of a surface erosion and sediment prevention plan prior to construction, and appointment of an environmental coordinator.
The University of Northern B.C. is participating with Dokie in monitoring wildlife impact.
Sullivan said Dokie has also verbally agreed to shut down any wind turbine that causes unacceptable harm, perhaps during bird migration periods.
“They don’t want to commit to that on paper,” she said. “But they don’t want to create a problem, either. The last thing any wind energy producer wants is the reputation of being another Altamont [the California wind farm site responsible for the deaths of thousands of birds].”
Sullivan said Dokie has worked with various government agencies to help alleviate environmental concerns, and cannot be expected to conduct every study prior to construction.
Still, is wind energy, the darling of governments and some environmental groups, getting preferential treatment by not doing more research up front?
“It’s a bit unusual,” Sullivan confirmed. “The problem is, the federal government would like to encourage wind energy projects.
“These wind energy projects are looked upon favourably in the rest of the country.”
One big unknown is that elsewhere in Canada wind farms tend to be built in open areas, not high ridge tops as in B.C., she said.
The B.C. Liberal government is firmly behind wind energy.
Environment Minister Barry Penner said that while it is important to choose the appropriate site to reduce negative impacts, he is staunchly in favour of wind turbines.
While every energy source has its share of problems, Penner figures wind energy has the fewest.
Minister of Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources Richard Neufeld said it’s up to the government to make the tough choices to ensure B.C. can be self-sufficient in energy over the coming decades.
Neufeld cannot imagine wind energy not forming part of the province’s energy solution, adding he supports industry and government working with communities to help alleviate concerns.
“Regardless of who we are or what we think, whether we’re strong environmentalists or not, every time we move around when we get up in the morning we have an effect on the environment,” he said.
Still, it is federal and provincial scientists and researchers, not just residents with views at stake, who have raised the alarm.
These scientists have questioned the degree of Dokie’s environmental assessment, the times when research was conducted, the lack of research on breeding raptors and other birds, the need to know numbers, composition and behaviour of birds in the area, even suggesting Dokie minimized the potential impact without supporting data.
Adam La Rusic, senior environmental engineer for Environment Canada, described in a report Dokie’s assessment as “potentially misleading” for relying on information on bird kills in areas such as Europe and the Canadian Prairies that might not be reflected to migratory birds, golden eagles and other raptors in the Chetwynd area.
“The many extrapolations of project baseline data throughout the applications and technical reports are, in our view, sometimes based on inaccurate, uncertain or inappropriate data, and faulty assumptions.”
The assumptions detract from the good work done in the assessment and “disguise the need for site specific assessments of risk,” La Rusic said.
Graham Suther, ecosystem biologist with the B.C. environment ministry, said “we are concerned regarding the potential for increased human or predator presence resulting from the increase and upgrading of surface areas. This is particularly important to terrestrial fauna and possible sensitive/rare vegetation communities that inhabit/exist in the application area.”
Dokie president Ron Percival said in Victoria that any lingering concerns about wind energy must be put in perspective.
“Global warming is the greatest threat to all species, not wind turbines,” he said. “The primary benefit of renewable wind energy is that it can replace other generation options which have greenhouse gas emissions.
“The fuel is free, abundant and . . . there are no carbon dioxide emissions.”
America’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory came to a similar conclusion, suggesting that while wind energy has its environmental impacts, it may be the lesser of society’s energy evils.
“Wind plants may result in some bird fatalities or other unwanted impacts on wildlife and their habitats,” the agency found. “All energy technologies have some negative environmental impacts. Society makes tradeoffs when making power plant choices.”
Percival added Dokie has also worked with local first nations to ensure the wind farm does not impact important cultural sites.
The Dokie proposal could become B.C.’s first wind energy project, after financing fell through for the Holberg Wind Energy Project on northern Vancouver Island after approval by the province in 2004.
Dokie is still undergoing an environmental review on its second wind farm proposal, a 70-megawatt wind farm for Mount Wartenbe, near Chetwynd between the Pine River and Lone Prairie.
Lone Prairie is a farming community of fewer than 100 people – a geographic bowl surrounded by grassy ridges.
“It’s beautiful, paradise, so quiet you can hear yourself think,” says Peter Dumlich, a retired oil-and-gas contractor who owns acreage in Lone Prairie. “You can’t stop everything [industry], but when it’s senseless, I usually speak up.”
Dumlich notes there are problems associated with wind energy in Europe, adding that conservation is the only responsible solution to soaring demand for energy.
Rosemary Keutzer, a soils toxicologist and former environmental policy analyst with the conservative Fraser Institute living in Chetwynd, says the proposal has created a lot of local anxiety.
Keutzer says one can’t assume wind turbines on a wilderness ridge will have the same environmental impact as those in low-lying agricultural areas. She believes Wartenbe ridge – home to wildlife as well as cattle grazing – is an inappropriate location. “This is an ecologically sensitive area,” she insisted.
Percival noted that despite the concerns in Lone Prairie, surveys show the vast majority of British Columbians support wind turbines as a smart solution to meeting energy needs.
Not all residents in the Peace River region disagree with him.
The winds blow more favourably 100 kilometres east of Chetwynd in Dawson Creek.
Emanuel Machado, the city’s deputy director of development services, said residents created the Peace Energy Cooperative to obtain a wind lease on nearby Bear Mountain. Working with private industry – AltaGas, and Aeolis Wind Power Corp. – to form the company, Bear Mountain Wind.
Bear Mountain Wind’s proposal is to build up to 60 turbines, each 78 to 108 metres high, producing a total of 120 megawatts of electricity across an area of approximately 2,200 hectares.
Making no bones about the fact the turbines will be fully visible from town, Machado says the community is choosing a clean energy source.
“It will be a life-changing experience for the community,” he says, betting residents will continue to picnic on the ridge as they do now. “Everyone can own a little piece of it.”
By Larry Pynn, Vancouver Sun
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