Five years ago, Cirque du Soleil composer Simon Carpentier moved into a mid-19th-century farmhouse on the banks of the tranquil Pike River in the Eastern Townships.
On three sides stretched an expanse of open fields where corn grew and hay was cut and dairy cows lowed. His only neighbours were farmers and they were good, quiet people. Carpentier had found the peace he needed to write his music.
It didn’t last.
In October 2006, he and other residents in this picturesque community of six villages, 70 kilometres southeast of Montreal near the Vermont border, woke up to a new future being mapped for their rural idyll.
A developer came to town, and he had a plan. At a public meeting in Bedford, it was revealed to be a huge electrical-generating installation. It would be built in the fields, with the farmers’ consent, and it would transform the land into a checkerboard of crop and machine, with row upon row of gigantic, three-rotor wind turbines towering high into the sky.
There would be 50 in all. Anchored in a deep concrete foundation, they would generate 75 megawatts of power at any given moment, enough to heat and light 15,000 homes – not in Quebec, but in the U.S., for the electricity would flow along an old, underused power line on wooden stilts that passes through the farmers’ fields straight to the border just 10 kilometres away.
Or such was the plan.
Revised last May and scaled down to 31 turbines generating a total 62 megawatts, it’s but one of many bids for wind-power projects across Quebec that the provincial utility solicited in 2005 and will begin examining after a final deadline Sept. 18.
With projects like this, Hydro-Quebec wants to add 2,000 megawatts of “clean, green” wind-generated electricity to its grid, now almost exclusively generated by big hydroelectric dams in remote northern regions.
The one here is called the Projet Eolien de Stanbridge Station, after the village along Route 202 that is on the proposed site’s southern flank. The developer is Montreal-based S.M. International Inc., and the project director is David Cliche, a former Parti Quebecois environment minister.
If the plan passes subsequent approval stages – at the Commission de protection du territoire agricole du Quebec hearings for its agricultural impact, the Bureau d’audiences publiques sur l’environnement hearing for its environmental impact – construction could begin as early as next spring.
Once up and running, the wind towers would stay in place for at least 25 years and dwarf everything around them.
They’d rise 138 metres tall from base to fibreglass rotor tip. That’s five times higher than Pike River’s landmark church, bell tower and all. Or, for the sake of an urban comparison, each would be about three-quarters the height of the Place Ville Marie skyscraper in downtown Montreal.
And they’d dominate a 5-kilometre-wide expanse of flat farmland through by rural roads and waterways and surrounded by historic Loyalist villages where 5,000 people live and work.
For Carpentier, the prospect of an industrial-scale wind park hit too close to home – his home.
The closest turbine – and the irritating, intermittent low swish of its rotors he expects to hear when the wind blows – would be just half a kilometre from his house.
“I can tolerate natural noise, like the wind in the trees during a storm, but this is not natural,” the composer said Wednesday.
“It’ll be an industrial park here, and that’s something dramatic, and it’s also unjust. It’s like the city is coming to the country. It makes me very worried.”
Since the announcement in October, there have been several developments:
Residents opposed to the project formed a pressure group in January, the Comite des citoyens preoccupes par la question des Eoliennes e Stanbridge Station. They developed a website, www.eoliennes-info.com, collected 400 signatures on a ‘No’ petition, and in June built a scale model showing the sheer size of the project, now on exhibit in a storefront on Bedford’s main street. They want the Quebec government to slap a 90-day moratorium on the project, demanding more study.
The dozen farmers whose land the wind towers would be built on have been negotiating collective compensation with the developer. The amounts are being kept hush-hush, but each farmer would get a fixed yearly amount to make up for the loss of agricultural revenue from the land under each tower, plus a cut of the yearly energy revenues generated. By negotiating as a group, the farmers say they hope to get the best price and spread the riches among themselves equitably.
The 20 mayors of the Brome-Missisquoi regional council have stayed officially neutral to the project, with the exception of one, Stanbridge Mayor Michel Pelletier, who has expressed concerns over its health effects. Long-term exposure to low-frequency noise over time has been linked to depression and stress. At least three municipalities – Pike River, Stanbridge Station and Bedford County – will be compensated financially if the project goes ahead; the amounts are secret. The council is to vote on the project Aug. 21. (Wind power has been banned in the eastern part of the region, which includes more touristic communities like Knowlton and Sutton.)
The local chapter of the Union des producteurs agricoles – mostly farmers who have land not inside the proposed development site but who care about its impact – opposes the project, saying it would rob the area of valuable and productive farmland, be a blight on the landscape, and irreparably harm the agricultural heritage of the region.
A neighbouring project directly to the north – a $400-million bid by Gale Force Energy Ltd., a Toronto-based subsidiary of Airtricity Holdings Ltd., of Ireland, to put more than 50 turbines on similar farmland – will be put to a referendum next month in Henryville, one of two villages affected (the other is Saint-Sebastien).
This Thursday evening, at an information meeting at Bedford’s community hall, S.M. International will present a final version of the project to local residents, its last public meeting before submitting its plan to Hydro-Quebec. It’s possible it has been modified since the presentation the company gave last May. Cliche did not respond to requests by phone and email for an interview.
To an outsider new to the controversy, there is some irony to the debate over wind power in the Townships. After all, in Quebec, wind turbines – first built in the Gaspe in 1999 and now numbering about 400 there – are not a developer’s dream but a creature of the environmental movement, which has long been critical of the devastation caused by flooding associated with traditional hydroelectric dams.
Shouldn’t eco-friendly Townshippers want in on this kind of technology?
“It’s not the technology we’re opposed to, and it’s not because we have a ‘not-in-my-backyard’ mentality,” said Fabien Poirier, a fourth-generation resident who restores old houses and furniture, has a head for statistics and history, and is a member of the ‘No’ committee.
“It’s just that we don’t think these wind towers should ever be put up in an inhabited area, so close to where people live. They’re totally out of proportion to everything around them.”
The residents fear a variety of ills documented from turbine use in other countries: the shadows of the blades at sunrise and sunset, creating a strobe effect that catches the eye and makes people nauseous; interference with analog TV reception, making channels hazy; blinking lights atop the towers that distract and annoy at night; falling house prices caused by the towers being so close; the constant noise of the rotating blades (generally under 40 decibels), likened to the uneven pitch of an overhead fan, the hum of a beehive or the sound of a school bus approaching from a distance; the effect on bird and bat migration; and disruption of drainage caused by a soil structure that gets degraded by the foundations of the towers, each one with a footprint that is wide and deep and hard: 600 cubic litres of poured concrete.
For their part, the farmers who’ve agreed to have turbines erected on their land are philosophical about the whole thing. And it’s not simply because they’re motivated by personal gain, by the developer’s promised payoff. They say it’s hard for a farmer to catch a break these days: branded as polluters, whose fertilizers have been fingered as one of the causes of blue-green algae in lakes, and barely prospering on thin profit margins, they don’t understand why anyone would criticize them for allowing “clean” wind power to be harnessed on their land, and trying to raise some steady cash from it.
“It’s green energy – what’s the matter with that?” said Raymond Pelletier, stripped to his waist in last Tuesday’s heat, taking a break in his tractor cab between cuttings of hay in his fields, right next to Carpentier the composer’s property.
Twenty years ago, Pelletier opposed the installation of Hydro’s transmission towers through his land – the same line that would now take the wind power to the States. The lesson for him? “The government will go ahead and do what it wants, whatever we say. There’s no point saying no.”
His neighbour, dairy farmer Albert Vermeulen, came to the area with his family from Belgium when he was 9. His grandfather, an immigrant, helped build the trans-Canada railroad, and his father worked in the coal mines. Vermeulen was a village councillor for 17 years and knows a thing or two about survival.
He has hydro poles on his land, next to the dirt road that leads to the Pike River covered bridge. What difference will a new tower or two, rotors whirring peacefully in the breeze, make for him?
“If it were nuclear, I’d be against it,” the 65-year-old said, squinting in the sunset under a dirty Shell Oil cap while his grandchildren played about. “But a post with a palm stuck on the end? What do you think? I don’t think it will stop the little fishes from swimming in the river.
“My impression is, two or three years after these towers go up, no one will see them anymore. They’ll just be part of the landscape.”
By Jeff Heinrich
28 July 2007
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