MARYSVILLE – The green technology on Wolfe Island has its neighbours seeing red.
The red, blinking aircraft navigation night lights atop many of the island’s wind turbines have attracted widespread condemnation in the area, from Howe Island, Kingston and even upstate New York.
Not to mention a growing number of people on Wolfe Island itself.
“When I was on the campaign trail, that was one of the biggest complaints I heard,” said newly elected Township of Frontenac Islands Mayor Dennis Doyle. “Even people in Kingston find it a bit annoying.”
Doyle, a licensed pilot, has begun looking into new radar technology that will allow tower lights to remain off until an aircraft flies into the area and activates them.
The company that owns and operates the 86 turbines on the island is cautioning against potential negative health effects.
“The cost is one thing,” said TransAlta spokesman Jason Edworthy. “The concern’s about putting a lot of radar energy into the community.
“We’d want to approach the community about that: ‘Do you really want that?’ ”
TransAlta was initially required to have 32 lights on the turbines but has been able to reduce the number to 25.
One of the people pushing hard for the radar devices is American Cliff Schneider.
A former state fisheries official, Schneider has conducted extensive sound and visual impact studies of the Wolfe Island turbines around his home in Cape Vincent, N.Y.
The tiny village is directly across a narrow channel on Lake Ontario from Wolfe Island. The two communities are connected by a small, privately run ferry and a number of turbines can be plainly seen, and heard, from the U.S. side.
In a 27-page report he completed last April, Schneider noted that 92% of the 43 residents he polled along Tibbetts Point Road in Cape Vincent commented specifically about the blinking lights at night.
“The shore people oriented their homes directly facing Wolfe Island. They maximized the view,” Schneider told the Whig- Standard this week. “Many have bedrooms overlooking the river. With the blinking lights, these people have their homes set up in a way they can’t get away from it.
“This was an impact they never thought would be as great, especially with the blinking and the red.”
The people of Cape Vincent and area are feeling squeezed by wind technology these days.
Two wind farm proposals could bring 250 wind turbines to their region in the next few years.
There is also a proposal by a Canadian developer with Kings – ton ties to install as many as 100 offshore turbines in the waters of Lake Ontario to the west of Wolfe Island.
The turbines on Wolfe Island have demonstrated to the people of Cape Vincent how the technology can affect their lives, even though the nearest one is nearly 5 km away.
“I can hear them from my house. I get up in the morning to get my paper and I hear it quite regularly. It’s very noticeable,” Schneider said.
“It sounds like a high-altitude jet. That dull roar never stops.”
People who live near wind energy projects express concerns about the effects of the turbines on their health – the resulting noise, the light flicker, the shadows created by spinning turbine blades on sunny days.
Earlier this year, a report from Ontario’s chief medical officer of health concluded that there appears to be no “direct causal link between turbine noise and adverse health effects.”
The red night lights seem to be more of a nuisance than a health concern.
“People say it definitely diminished the views,” said Schneider. “The thing they generally really complained about was the view and the esthetics, even though there was no specific question about the lights (on the survey).”
There is growing worry, however, about property devaluation.
A Wolfe Island couple has petitioned the provincial assessment corporation to lower their tax assessment because of their proximity to a number of turbines.
“I’ve done a lot of work on that,” Schneider said. “(Home) sales in Cape Vincent compared to adjoining towns have been substantially less. Also, properties have been on market for a long time. If they don’t start selling, people have to lower their prices.”
Greg Erdmann says he has a solution for everybody.
Erdmann is the sales director for the Obstacle Collision Avoidance System of Vienna, Va. – the radar system that turns on the lights when aircraft approach.
“We’re calling it a wind farm visual impact mitigation technology,” he said. “It basically reduces the impact of wind farms. This problem can now be addressed.”
The system was first installed in the U.S. in 2006 on an electricity transmission line.
It has since been approved for use by Transport Canada and the devices are being added to the turbines currently going up at the Talbot Wind Farm, owned by the company RES, on the north shore of Lake Erie near Blenheim.
“It’s a big one for us because it’s the first Canadian wind farm,” said Erdmann.
That project has 43 turbines, half the number on Wolfe Island, and will require 10 radar units.
He acknowledges the technology is expensive. Each radar unit costs between $160,000 and $220,000.
“It’s very difficult for an existing wind farm to add on because their finances are already locked up. I’ve talked to the folks at TransAlta, but they’re very concerned about the cost,” said Erdmann.
He said the shadow flicker and noise issues may never go away, but companies can do something about the red night lights.
In a follow-up e-mail to the Whig-Standard, he said that “there is never danger to anybody” from the radar units because they’re mounted at least 30 metres above the ground.
“The conclusion of our safety document is that beyond 2.2 metres of an operating radar, the system falls within (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) safety standards. If a person is within 2.5 metres of an operating radar, that person should be aware that they are being exposed to electromagnetic radiation and access should be limited,” he wrote.
The fact that the mayor of Frontenac Islands has called him indicates to Erdmann that the Wolfe Island lights issue will only intensify.
“He’s the mayor and the lights suck. We’re getting a lot of calls from residents and people across in New York. It seems to be heating up,” he said.
“This technology is the only technology that will take care of one of those issues. We can turn off the lights.”
Erdmann says he’s asked TransAlta officials for a layout of the Wolfe Island facility so he can run it through his company’s computer simulation system and determine how many would be needed to meet Transport Canada requirements.
Edworthy said TransAlta will look at the technology.
“All these things, when they come out, have their pros and cons and we cautiously look at them. The first off the block isn’t always the best or the most cost-effective,” he said.
Erdmann said his company would cut a special deal with TransAlta in order to get a foothold in the Canadian market.
“We’d be willing to heavily discount, but I haven’t heard back,” he said.
Doyle said he will likely bring the red light issue to his council in January.
“You can’t help but notice them. As long as I close the blinds, they’re not bad where I live,” he said, “(but) the biggest complaint is the lights blinking on and off, even from as far away as our friends on Howe Island. When they’re flashing, they reflect on the water and you see them flashing in your windows.”
Once the issue is discussed at council, the township may approach TransAlta, but Doyle believes the province should establish more detailed regulations about night lighting.
“I know it’s not the kind of thing we can resolve overnight,” he said. “It would be a good thing if we could make it standard across Ontario because it will increase acceptance of (wind turbines). Anything you do to minimize the negative effects improves the acceptance.”