For more than a century, Bill Hayden’s sprawling farm has produced beans, grain and corn, raised livestock and provided a home for generations of farmers in the tiny township of Ashfield-Colborne-Wawanosh on the southeast shores of Lake Huron.
Hayden’s grandfather and father toiled to turn a cedar swamp north of Goderich, Ont., into 700 acres of farmland, hoping the fruits of their labour would carry on for decades to come.
Harvesting wind energy likely never crossed their minds. Hayden didn’t think he’d be a wind-power pioneer, either.
But he was the first landowner in the township to allow a privately owned wind turbine to be erected on his property in 2002, providing clean, renewable electricity.
“It was quite the attraction then,” Hayden said. “People used to come by just to see what all the fuss was about.”
Three white, glistening turbines now dot Hayden’s property, their sleek blades turning in the wind as he tends to daily farm chores. People who drive by the farm still slow down or stop from time to time, in awe of the towering structures.
With 20 other windmills in the area – the first phase of Alberta-based EPCOR’s Kingsbridge wind project – and similar projects under construction nearby, the novelty of the gargantuan turbines has worn off.
The controversy surrounding them hasn’t.
The wind power industry has exploded in Canada, doubling in size in 2006 with more than 1,500 megawatts of installed wind capacity – enough to power approximately 440,000 homes. The push to invest in the renewable energy source has been particularly aggressive in Ontario, where 38 wind energy projects greater than one megawatt have been contracted since 2003.
A recent poll conducted for the Canadian Wind Energy Association suggests the majority of Ontarians support wind farm development, but emerging pockets of resistance have led to project delays, legal disputes, political tension and divided communities.
Opponents have accused wind farm developers of endangering birds, harming locals’ health and putting up eyesores that do little but create noise and produce insufficient levels of energy.
In Essex County, proposed wind farms have met varying levels of opposition. Leamington and Essex councils have temporarily banned new wind and solar power projects. Kingsville is looking at project proposals, awaiting the results of environmental assessments.
The County of Essex released a comprehensive report Wednesday that will guide the development of zoning bylaws for its seven municipalities and Pelee Island for wind power and other alternative energy projects.
Protection for residential areas, airports, tourist attractions like natural and heritage sites, trails and wine tours, bird migration routes and nesting areas, are called for in the 191-page report, to be used as the basis for public consultation, which starts next Wednesday.
Wind farm developers must conduct an environmental screening process, but concerned residents can appeal to the Ministry of Environment for a more comprehensive assessment. The ministry has noise and flicker guidelines for wind turbines that must be followed.
“We want to have a balanced approach in terms of arguments for and against wind projects,” said Essex County Warden Nelson Santos, who is also mayor of Kingsville. “Our council has said we’re supportive of the environment, but (wind turbines) have to be located where they’re not posing problems for residents.”
Last year, plans to put 119 wind turbines in Lake Erie west of Point Pelee resulted in a massive protest from Kingsville and Leamington residents and the project was axed.
Lakeshore, on the other hand, has opened its doors to interested wind energy companies by amending the town’s official plan and zoning bylaws to allow the installation of wind turbines. In July, a company that operates seven wind farms in France, Quebec-based Boralex Inc., announced its plans to build nine wind farms in the Windsor-Chatham area by 2009.
It’s the kind of progress Amherstburg businessman Loris Collavino hopes will continue in the area. The chief executive officer of The Prestressed Group is interested in erecting wind turbines on the River Canard-area land he purchased from General Chemical Canada.
He has applied to the Ministry of Energy for a contract as an independent wind farm operator, but says he may eventually let a developer come in to install a commercial project, pending approvals.
“All of my options are open right now,” he said. “I see this as a benefit to the wetlands, as well as an economic opportunity. The only thing I have to say about the opposition is … people are looking at all the information on the internet that may not be truthful. They try to paint everything bleak.”
Kingsville resident John O’Neil, who opposed wind turbines in Lake Erie, said he’s concerned that wind energy companies are not coming forward with all the facts.
“I’m a little suspicious about how much energy they actually produce,” he said. “I don’t like the fact that the government is subsidizing these projects. I think the wind supply is not dependable. There probably is a way for (turbines) to exist here, but we should be very cautious about where they go, not just jam the projects through.”
Even without a wind tower in sight, heated debates over proposed wind projects continue to take place across Essex County. But those who live along the windy shores of Lake Huron, a region that’s gradually becoming Ontario’s wind farm land, say blueprints and maps don’t even begin to illustrate life in the shadow of a wind turbine.
“You really can’t appreciate wind turbines unless you stand next to one,” says Neil Levine, spokesman for EPCOR Ontario. “They’re quite a sight.”
Each Kingsbridge I turbine is 78 metres tall, the approximate height of a 25-storey building, and can generate enough power for about 600 homes. The turbines have a diameter of four metres at the base and three 39-metre long hollow blades that produce an aerodynamic “whoosh” with each turn.
The 22 wind towers produce enough electricity to the power grid to supply approximately 12,500 homes each year.
A number of landowners have signed 20-year lease agreements with the company, allowing the turbines to be erected among their crop fields. Industry observers have said such contracts can be worth at least $5,000 per year.
Hayden, who also allowed a natural gas well to be drilled on his property in the 1970s, would only say the three turbines on his farm bring in “substantial” income.
“It’s a very good thing for the farmers, especially when you deal with a good company,” he said. “It’s green energy, it doesn’t pollute and you only lose maybe a quarter of an acre to get the turbine up.
“You just have to make sure you get a good lawyer and get your legal work done.”
Achim and Allison Stoecker’s 2,000-acre farm boasts nine wind turbines which can be seen from Highway 21, a main artery in the region.
“We think they’re great,” said Allison Stoecker. “They’re quiet and good for the environment. We should be looking in that direction and build more of them.”
A number of Stoecker’s neighbours do not agree.
Across the road, 65-year-old Ernie Marshall and his wife Sharon have put their property and retirement house up for sale, claiming the nearby turbines have destroyed their quality of life.
“They said the turbines would be whisper quiet,” he said. “But I’m awake from them all the time.”
Marshall blames the wind farm for his health problems, which began when he suffered a stroke that impaired his vision.
“It’s all the stress from the noise and not sleeping,” he said. He also claims the windmills upset livestock and pets.
“I had to get rid of my ponies. They were too restless. My dogs – they were always so quiet – went crazy and chewed up my wicker chair.”
Levine said there are currently no peer-reviewed medical studies that link the presence of wind turbines to illnesses. And although some wind energy companies say turbines increase the value of rural properties, Marshall said no one wants to buy land in the vicinity of a wind farm.
He’s had to reduce the asking price for his property, which is about 550 metres from the nearest wind tower, but still hasn’t had any offers.
“When (EPCOR) first came in and started proposing the turbines, we took their word for everything. We didn’t know what these things would be like. I was even interested at first. We were the guinea pigs.”
Marshall has a long list of names and phone numbers of people he says are just as dismayed by the turbine noise and unsightliness as he is. The opponents have been voicing their concerns to town council, asking for greater setbacks and noise controls.
As council discusses what kind of regulations should be in place, EPCOR’s 158.7-megawatt Kingsbridge II project is on hold.
The resistance in Ashfield-Colborne-Wawanosh has spread to Kincardine, less than an hour drive north away from Goderich, where Enbridge’s 110-turbine wind farm was challenged before the Ontario Municipal Board.
During a seven-week hearing this summer, members of the Windfarm Action Group used expert testimonies and various studies to argue for tougher noise standards and bigger setbacks for turbines from neighbouring homes, objecting to the locations of 55 wind towers.
The OMB allowed the project, now slightly reduced in size, to go ahead.
Bob Simpson, general manager of Enbridge Ontario Wind Power, said the delay has been costly for the company. Wind turbine parts shipped from Europe and the United States had to be stored until construction was approved and contractors were called off.
“We had planned on having some of the turbines up by the end of 2007,” he said. “As a result of the OMB hearing, we will now have a noise dispute resolution process in place, whereby we will respond to complaints very quickly, within one to two business days.”
Windfarm Action Group member Tony Clark is not convinced.
“I feel like I’m being forced out of my own home,” he said. “I didn’t come to live in the country to be in an industrial area. We want peace and quiet.”
Opposition to wind farms has been largely fuelled by fear of the unknown, said Robert Hornung, president of the Canadian Wind Energy Association.
“At first, when the municipalities were being asked to consider these projects, there was not a lot to look at as an example,” he said. “In some parts of Europe, wind energy has been used for 20 years. This is still a new industry in Canada.”
Hornung said “there’s no doubt” that recent wind farm developments will generate more support for future projects, as communities become more familiar with the green technology and its benefits.
He also cited the role of provincial and federal governments in the growing interest in renewable energy sources. If a recently released Ontario Power Authority proposal is adopted by the province, the use of renewable energy such as wind and solar power will double.
“The opposition is affecting a minority of projects,” Hornung said. “I would expect that as we get more experience and more knowledge about wind power, we’ll see that opposition decline.”
– With files from Windsor Star news services