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Conservationists fail to block Alberta wind farm

A controversial wind farm slated for a pristine piece of prairie in southeastern Alberta has cleared a major hurdle, despite opposition from environmentalists who are now bracing for a deluge of similar proposals in the region.

Medicine Hat-based West WindEau Inc. is planning to erect 86 turbines, just outside the Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park, that are aimed at churning out 200 megawatts of power.

Farmers – who would be paid for the use of their land – crowed about the benefits of green energy. Their unlikely opponents, conservationists, worried about ruined views and destroyed habitats. Both groups packed the Cypress County Council chamber this week to voice their opinions as the $300-million project went to a vote.

Although some councillors voted against the proposal, council ultimately approved two sets of land-use amendments that give the wind farm the green light, and potentially allow further development.

“There are another six applications waiting in the wings,” Brian Whitson, the county’s planner, said yesterday.

Those projects, including an additional proposal from West WindEau, include farms that would produce between one and 200 megawatts of power, Mr. Whitson said. They are planned to go up throughout the county – not just near the Cypress Hills park, which is located southeast of Medicine Hat and spills into Saskatchewan.

One or two projects could come to a vote by year’s end and the rest could be debated in 2008, he said.

For now, opponents say they hope they can prevent the West WindEau project, known as the Wild Rose Wind Farm, from taking root. They plan to ask for a judicial review and voice their concerns to the Alberta Energy and Utilities Board.

Local landowner and environmentalist Henry Binder told council that the development fails to respect the heritage and ecological landscape of the area.

“I suppose the proponent would also consider putting turbines on other tourist attractions valued for their scenic beauty, like Lake Louise, for instance,” he argued. “It’s clear they don’t belong everywhere.”

The park’s rolling grasslands, forests and lakes are some of the most photographed vistas in the province. The region is also one of Alberta’s windiest, making it ideal to harness wind power. What’s more, this is a time when the global threat of climate change has spurred heightened interest in green energy.

Even Canada’s foremost environmentalist, David Suzuki, waded into the Cypress Hills debate, at one point writing about the beauty of wind farms and drawing disapproval from local conservationists, who worried his stand would undermine their opposition.

West WindEau’s plan could supply power for 78,000 homes a year. The company’s chairman, David Boileau, has been consulting residents for the past four years.

The company still needs to finalize transmission-line issues.

It also requires development permits and approval from energy regulators.

By Dawn Walton

theglobeandmail.com

21 July 2007