We’ve had a couple of calm weeks after initial gusts of blustery rhetoric over a wind energy project proposed for the southern extremity of Cape Breton County. The debate will pick up again, perhaps more in a spirit of consultation than confrontation.
On paper the plan by Cape Breton Explorations Ltd. to combine a wind farm with pumped water storage has an elegant appeal for those with a taste for engineering. Up to 44 wind turbines would deliver electricity to the grid at peak demand times but put the power into reversible water turbines during off-peak hours. The pumps would replenish an artificial reservoir from Lake Uist in the Irish Vale area, and the elevated water would later be released down the same penstocks to generate hydro power.
The wind turbines are relatively uncontroversial, although large wind farm have raised opposition in some parts of the province. It’s the hydro aspect, especially the plan to flow large volumes of water in and out of the natural lake system, that has raised alarm in several quarters.
Among the fears are that sensitive salmon and other fish could be harmed by changes in water quality, temperatures and depths as a result of the frequent flows in and out of the hydro generating system. It’s obvious at a glance that such concerns are legitimate and would need to be very carefully answered before any approval to proceed.
Yet it’s remarkable how much the early debate has been coloured by an apparent lack of public confidence that the project will receive the rigorous scrutiny required to protect the public interest. Often the questions are posed in an accusatory tone, as though the questioners fear even the most obvious issues would be ignored if not pressed to the forefront by concerned groups and individuals.
There have been demands for thorough environmental assessment, as though there were some palpable risk of the project going ahead with only a cursory pro forma review. In fact the province’s environment department just a month ago published a 20-page terms of reference for the environmental assessment which the proponent now has up to two years to complete.
The terms of reference, which were open in draft form to public comment, set out a rather exhaustive list of factors to be dealt with: water depths, “valued ecosystem components,” consultation with aboriginals and the general public, possible effects on fish, wildlife, flora and fauna and ways to mitigate these, potential design variations, and so on.
One reason for continuing anxiety over the process is that the federal government has yet to say what role it will have in evaluating the project. The terms of reference say only that federal environmental requirements “are being determined.” Rightly or wrongly, the public tends to find comfort with a federal presence in such reviews, the bigger the better. This is due partly to lingering suspicion that provincial environmental scrutiny isn’t up to snuff, but it’s also just the notion that the more expert eyeballs that are studying a project the better.
As attractive as this project is conceptually, it must be shown convincingly that it can be done at an acceptable, which is to say minimal, ecological impact and risk. There’s no good reason to assume that either the proponent or the regulators wish to evade these constraints.
29 March 2008
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