On a recent road trip though Southwestern Ontario, I saw a vision of the future.
Well, at least a future for some places and a vision not without a few complications. No, this has nothing to do with the supposed end of the world, which, if you might have noticed, didn’t happen (again). The vision I saw was that of giant wind turbines spread across the fertile farmland and along the shore of Lake Erie.
Even at a distance, these odd looking, three bladed wind turbines dominate the landscape. When you get up close, they are even more intimidating. As I travelled through Bruce County and the Chatham-Kent area, I saw dozens of these white wind turbines scattered across the land. The winds were favourable and the blades were slowly spinning, creating electrical power for a power hungry people.
I doubt anyone has ever described these things as beautiful. They are far from it. However, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and if there is beauty in being able to create electricity from the wind, then these wind turbines have a certain ugly duckling beauty.
One of the things about a wind turbine creating electricity is the total reliance upon the wind. Unlike coal fired plants, nuclear plants or even hydro electric plants, wind generated power has an unreliable energy source.
When, for how long and how strong the winds will blow in a particular location are, to say the least, variable factors. Where do you build your wind turbine? These “Johnny-come-lately” structures might be necessary energy producing units, but many of the ideal locations are in the midst of populated areas or areas that require serious consideration before we start building.
To say the wind-generation business is controversial would be an understatement. I spent many years addressing environmental issues and this one has a little bit of everything for everyone.
Yes, you can generate electricity by building giant wind turbines. Yes, you can find numerous good reasons to build lots and lots of wind turbines so you don’t have to build more coal-fired plants or nuclear plants.
No, a windmill doesn’t produce power when the wind doesn’t blow or when it blows too hard. No, a lot of people don’t want giant wind turbines in their frontyard, backyard or blocking their previously pristine view of the lake or woods or horizon.
Many of these machines stand almost 200 metres tall and have red warning beacons on them. Having your evening view polka doted with little red lights might not be your idea of beautiful either.
A thousand turbines can produce around 1,800 megawatts of electricity in ideal conditions. Presently, there are just under 1,000 operating in the province. Again, under ideal conditions, that is enough power to supply somewhere around 5,000 homes.
You can expect the number of wind turbines to be four or five times higher within several years.
Proponents extol the virtues of this technology by claiming it to be environmentally friendlier than most others. They claim it will be a job creator.
Turbines built in offshore locations will cause no appreciable human or natural impacts and they will benefit from ideal wind conditions.
Those opposed to the turbines claim the units reduce the land value for people nearby. The low level sounds created by the blades are disturbing and a health hazard. The aesthetics are a blight on the land and the spinning blades a threat to migrating and local bird populations.
Let’s pretend you are a provincial politician and there is a fall election coming up. Which side of the wind do you stand on? After considerable public opposition, the Ontario government changed direction regarding offshore wind projects. Was this new green technology a little too green? With an upcoming election, did the testing of the political winds have an inordinate amount of influence on the governments decision?
Depending on who you talk to and what side of this issue they stand on, the answers will vary as much as the winds themselves. Those promoting the industry believe this decision was ill founded and will have a long lasting negative impact on Ontario.
Those opposed believe the decision was the right one and they influenced the change in policy by their opposition. The government representatives justified their change of heart saying they now felt it was necessary to take a cautious approach to this relatively unproven concept of wind turbines on freshwater lakes.
To those investors and businesses who spent a great deal of time and money working for years on these projects all I can say is, “Welcome to Ontario politics.”
Clearly, the future will see many more wind turbines springing up across the province. Who benefits the most from them and who pays more of a price for them than they think they should will depend on which way certain politicians lean in the constantly shifting winds of politics and public opinion.
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