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An Ill Wind Blows: Is "Green" Always Good?  

Alternative power is all the rage but even a magic bullet can draw blood. Dave Bidini visits Ontario’s bucolic Wolfe Island, where an Alberta firm wants to build a $410-million wind farm, bigger than any now operating in Canada. Many residents are bitter – their home is a major stopover for species that migrate in the dark, ‘when you can’t see the birds getting chopped out of the sky’.

WOLFE ISLAND, ONT. – The trucks rolled onto Wolfe Island: brightly grilled rock crushers, their flanks matted with grass and mud – a scouting party testing the soil for the construction of what may be Canada’s largest wind farm, but this wasn’t suppose to happen so soon.

Not after members of the Wolfe Island Residents for the Environment (WIRE) had spent the weekend at the General Wolfe Hotel talking about the rare sighting of the northern wheatear on the island’s western point. Not after environmentalist Mark Mattson – the Lake Ontario Waterkeeper, whose ancestors settled on the island in 1865 – had woven stories from the tavern’s stage about how other citizen groups had empowered themselves in the face of encroaching industrial muscle. And certainly not after Environment Canada had declared Wolfe Island to be a globally significant flyway for raptors, bats and songbirds – whose numbers could be imperilled if the planned development should take hold.

But two days later, WIRE’s Sarah McDermott, whose home and old dented barn sit lakeside with a view to the ferry dock, awoke to the sound of grumbling engines amassing in advance of the great whirling turbines being planned for this small, quiet and ecologically rich pocket at the confluence of Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River.

And so the trucks rolled on to Wolfe Island.

Thirty-two kilometres long and 11 kilometres wide, Wolfe Island is the largest of the St. Lawrence’s famed Thousand Islands, and about 18 minutes from Kingston by ferry. Nearly 1,200 residents live there year-round, but in the summer cottagers double the population.

I first visited in 2003, when my band, Rheostatics, played the annual autumn music festival, which takes place on a baseball diamond behind a stand of old forest.

This forest is woven into endless fields, great pockets of wetland, teeming wildlife and a village – Marysville. My first ferry ride gave way to others, which, in turn, gave way to the Joe Burke Wolfe Island Literary Festival, staged on the porch of the Mattsons’ cottage every June, and the Wolfe Island Hockey Tournament, held every February on a rink babied through the frigid dead of night by Ben Woodman, who drives the island’s Zamboni, as well as its school bus.

From 10 turbines to 86

When Ms. McDermott first heard about the proposal by Calgary-based Canadian Hydro Developers (CHD) to build on Wolfe Island, the turbines numbered 10. Then there were 40 and, finally, 86, which would cost $410-million and produce enough electricity to power 75,000 average homes, more than the entire area surrounding Kingston.

She was told, originally, that these great metallic toothpicks – as high as a football field is long – would be limited to the northern part of the island, but updated plans showed that 30 of them are to be stuck in Wolfe’s western wetlands.

Before learning about CHD’s intentions – at 197.8 megawatts, it’s the biggest project currently listed by the Canadian Wind Energy Association – Ms. McDermott felt the same way about windmills that most people do. In the mind’s eye, they seem like so many dandelion stems, rising over a Flemish storybook horizon.

Wind power makes the world feel good about itself: replacing fossil fuels and nuclear gunk with renewable, non-toxic energy; planting huge fairground whirlygigs where the land might otherwise be gouged, or its rivers dammed. It seems like some sort of an environmental balm, but the more Ms. McDermott learned about the effects of wind power – and the zealousness of new energy companies to win government incentives – the more she saw it as possessing the potential to distort or corrupt the land. To her, the plan for Wolfe Island has pitted the windmills against the birds, raising a greater question: Who owns the wind?

When news of the development filtered through the community, WIRE – a group of concerned island residents, most of them women – took to studying the natural habitat of the island’s western point. Sound recordings showed that, during their annual migration, 7,000 to 9,000 birds cross those wetlands at night. With the arrival of the turbines, they would be flying into a stand of whirring, blinking, 135-metre-high towers with 45-metre blades fearsomely rotating 90 metres in diameter.

Bill Evans, a naturalist from upstate New York who specializes in turbine-related eco-culture, was hired to study what the impact might be. At the General Wolfe that night, he explained that migrating birds are generally overlooked wherever wind farms are built – especially what can happen at night, when “you can’t see the birds getting chopped out of the sky.”

According to Mr. Evans, the surprise sighting of the wheatear, a species that summers in the Far North but normally spends the winter in Africa, “is significant because they’re only found wherever there’s a great concentration of species. These birds would have to make evasive flight manoeuvres to avoid colliding with any given turbine on the island.

“Most birds are thought to have the capability to avoid such collisions during clear or high-cloud-ceiling nights, but it’s the low cloud or foggy nights that give them problems.”

Located in a big lake and close to a big river, he adds, Wolfe Island has a lot of fog and low-hanging cloud, which “suggests that avian mortality would be higher here” than any other wind farm in North America.

Picture windows worse?

CHD representatives dispute these claims. “Wind plants impact far fewer birds than many other structures, such as buildings, guyed towers and household picture windows,” project manager Rob Miller said in an e-mail. “On balance, wind plants help to clean up the air, water and food supply, helping to preserve the environment for many animal and bird species to enjoy.”His response failed to impress Mr. Evans. “Any competent ornithologist … will agree with me that [there will be] greater avian migration on Wolfe Island than at inland sites,” he says. “Nothing in CHD’s preconstruction avian-risk assessment makes any prediction about what the avian mortality will be, just that it’s expected to be low. Mortality may only turn out to be 15 to 20 birds a year, but what if it’s 50?”

Like Presqu’ile, a major migratory stopover to the west, Wolfe Island counts on birders, as well as cyclists, hunters and fisherman, for modest seasonal income. Over the past few years, the local council – two members from Wolfe plus two from nearby Howe Island and Mayor Jim Van Hoek – has promoted the place as an eco-tourist destination, but it was also quick to embrace the turbine deal.

The turbine proposal passed by a vote of 3 to 0: two votes from Howe Island, which stands to benefit from the deal but will provide a home to no windmills, and one from Mayor Van Hoek. The Wolfe Island councillors abstained because both have committed to having turbines on their land.Concerned that so few people should determine the fate of so many, WIRE asked the mayor to hold a referendum, but that idea died at the council’s door. Since then, the issue has become alarmingly divisive. The more active WIRE has become, the more intractable the council has been.

When Ms. McDermott asked the council for a list of voters so WIRE could send information to seasonal residents, she was told to copy the names and addresses in longhand, a requirement she says CHD didn’t have to meet when it wanted the list so it could send out an environmental-impact report prepared by Stantec, an Edmonton-based consulting firm. A few days later, an island resident involved with WIRE told Ms. McDermott that she had been informed by her pro-turbine family: “We brought you over on the ferry to the island, and we can send you off the island too.”

Rent: $7,500 a pop

Landowners stand to earn up to $7,500 for every turbine they allow on their property and they see this development as a boon for their economically idle island. Others, such as island resident Peggy Smith, a lawyer working with WIRE, suggest that “companies like CHD target communities that are poor and easily influenced.”

Mr. Miller has said the site was chosen because “some of the best winds in Ontario are on Wolfe Island and this is a perfect location,” close to major electrical transmission lines.

But Wolfe Island Music Festival organizer Virginia Clark, whose home will be near three turbines in an adjacent farmer’s field, sees darker forces at work: “The island is ideal for CHD because a lot of people here are old, naive and impressionable. Someone comes to their door and offers them money, and it’s hard to resist.”

Strong language, but she feels it’s justified. “When council wanted to turn Big Sandy Beach into a conservation area, there was a huge outcry because islanders wanted to preserve the island as it was. And now, all of a sudden, there’s this sweeping change of heart.”

Another WIRE member is even more blunt: “A lot of island residents drive straight from the ferry to their satellite dishes. Those who have been around the longest seem to care the least about what’s happening to their island.”

One problem facing WIRE is the fact that, because turbines produce clean energy, people assume that the companies that build them will be as inclusive and community-minded as the grassroots movement that spawned the greening of the power sector. During a recent hearing by the Ontario Municipal Board, which governs land use in the province, Mr. Miller admitted that CHD is aware of the island’s environmental sensitivities and the proposed alterations to its project. But to meet the deadlines for government incentive programs, he said, these issues will be addressed only after the turbines are up and running, even though both Parks Canada and the province’s Ministry of Natural Resources have warned against developing the island.

WIRE has suggested that CHD scale back its plans so that the impact on the island will be minimal should the turbines prove to be environmentally unsound. But in a statement prepared through his company’s media consultant, Mr. Miller countered that CHD “will be conducting an unprecedented, extensive post-construction monitoring program once the wind project has been built. This thorough monitoring effort will examine the potential direct and indirect effects on avian species (i.e., birds and bats) in the project area.”

He continued: “The net effect of good planning is to balance the economic, social and natural environment interests of all parties associated with the wind energy project. Setbacks [placement of the turbines] from environmentally sensitive areas such as wetlands and bird habitat have been carefully considered in the design and layout.”

Mr. Miller was unable to say how much it would cost to take down the turbines should they prove hazardous, which Ms. Smith found less than encouraging: “Isn’t it nice that CHD has found such a good place to put up an experimental project?” Ms. McDermott says the news of the vaunted “monitoring program” left members of WIRE “heartbroken.”

Birds aren’t alone

As well as the impact on nature, there is growing concern about how the development may affect island life.

Each turbine will require the construction of an access road and the Wolfe Island ferry – a craft that can accommodate only 55 cars – will have to carry an estimated 500 heavy vehicles needed to build the roads and deliver the turbines. No one really knows what a project on this scale will do to the tourist trade – the dust alone could drive visitors away – and whether an island village with just one bakery, one beer store, one restaurant and one hotel can support an influx of 250 workers.

One of WIRE’s great fears is what the island will look like once the work is finished.

“People are traditionally drawn to Wolfe Island to escape the disorientation of cities and their urban communities,” Ms. McDermott says. “But turbines, with their glowing lights blinking every three seconds and blades that wheel out of rhythm depending on the wind, are equally disorienting. Even when they’re not directly in your backyard, they’re a dominating presence.

“These days, when you come over on the ferry to the island, the only tall thing you see is the radio-transmission tower, and the rest is green. But if the turbines get built, they’ll crowd the skyline, all 135 metres of them. Instead of feeling like you’ve put the mainland behind you, you’ll be sailing into a constant reminder of what you left behind.”

WIRE has criticized Mayor Van Hoek (who declined a request to discuss the situation) for not opening the project to outside bidders. Some turbine developers, such as Moncton-based Preneal Canada Ltd., allow wind farms to be owned locally, as opposed to CHD’s one-time cash deal, believed to be about $650,000 for the Wolfe and Howe Island municipality.

The critics stress that they aren’t necessarily anti-turbine, but they object to the way the project has come about, as well as the number and the nature of the machines. The turbines expected on the island are open-bladed, a style being replaced in Europe by closed-blade turbines, which do less damage to wildlife. “We feel that islanders were misled,” Ms. Smith says. “… But as people start to learn about the environmental legacy of turbines, some farmers who’ve leased their land are having second thoughts about the project.”

But unless WIRE can persuade CHD to make changes, the wind farm will go ahead, and by next year be generating electricity – as well as deep anxieties in a place that, for years, enjoyed the confidence that comes with being far removed from the typical complications of mainland life.

The ethical dilemma

Wolfe Island residents, it seems, are being asked to choose between natural harmony and the right to clean energy, two things that were supposed to go hand in hand. The shift to alternative power was expected to leave behind the environmental damage caused by traditional energy sources, but many island residents have a feeling of defeat that is traditionally associated with the arrival of most other industrial devils.

That the turbines won’t be burning fossil fuels, spewing smoke or chewing uranium is a small consolation, they say, if the cost is their island’s fragile aesthetic. To them, the devil they know is a devil nonetheless.

DAVE BIDINI

November 17, 2007

Dave Bidini is a Toronto writer and musician. His new book is entitled Around the World in 57½ Gigs (McClelland & Stewart).

Gone with the wind

According to a poll by the Canadian Wind Energy Association, 87 per cent of Canadians feel the benefits of wind energy far outweigh the drawbacks. But what are those drawbacks?

Space

Much is required. To produce the same energy as a conventional gas-fired power plant, wind farms need 85 times more land.

Cost

Wind operations are relatively expensive to install and maintain. The initial investment is often higher than for fossil-fuel systems, and the resulting electricity can cost twice as much.

Sound

According to an Alberta government report, levels are very low compared with other sources of noise at the same frequency, such as “sonic booms, shock waves from explosions, etc.,” but in the right circumstances, the sounds “can be heard or felt by nearby residents.”

Visuals

Because of their great height, turbines can cause “horizon pollution.” People also complain of being blinded by the strobe-light effect created at dawn and dusk.

Reliability

Wind power is intermittent. Production tends to be high when demand for power is low and low when demand is high. When there is no wind, an alternative energy source is required.

And …

As for that threat to birds, it can be devastating. In northern California’s Altamont Pass, more than 400 endangered or protected birds are killed every year by turbines, including golden eagles, red-tailed hawks, burrowing owls and kestrels.

Sources: Energy Probe, Alberta Ministry of Agriculture and Food, U.S. National Center for Policy Analysis

Globe and Mail, November 17, 2007

This article is the work of the source indicated. Any opinions expressed in it are not necessarily those of National Wind Watch.

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