Late last year we learned that a company called Zero Emission Energy Developments plans to develop and operate (subject to permitting) two wind farms about 30 kilometres west of Summerland, a location that, strictly speaking, places them outside of the Okanagan Valley. These projects are called Shinish Creek North and South and each is projected to produce about 15 megawatts of power. These are relatively small when compared to the 105 megawatts produced by B.C.’s first operating wind farm, located near Dawson Creek. All of which are dwarfed by the WAC Bennett Dam’s output exceeding 2,700 megawatts.
Wind power has been touted as the environmentally friendly way to solve the problem of ever-diminishing fossil fuels and increasing CO2 emissions. But like most things, the truth is never as simple as we would like it to be. A column in this very paper raised a number of issues associated with wind farms in general and these developments in particular. Of course, there is no known source of energy that is free of environmental concerns. Even B.C.’s main source of electric power, hydro generation, has its problems. There is no free lunch.
Wind farms, once they are built and operating, do have extremely low, if not zero, CO2 emissions. However, they do have significant environmental impacts that range from habitat impairment or destruction to mass killings of birds and bats. This is not to suggest that wind farms should not be built, but that rather they should be built to stringent standards and employ the latest technology for avoiding bird and bat fatalities.
Wind farm proponents argue that each wind turbine kills on average only two birds per year. Nevertheless, there are many examples of significant bird kills, especially when wind farms have been poorly situated or when “operational mistakes” occur. An example of the former is the Altamont Pass wind farm in California which turned out to be built on an eagle migration route. It is estimated that more than 2,000 golden eagles have been killed by the wind turbines. An example of the latter is a recent incident at a West Virginia wind farm where nearly 500 birds were killed in one night when some lights at the facility were accidentally left on and migrating birds became disoriented by the light. A new wind farm consisting of 86 turbines on Wolfe Island near Kingston, Ont. killed 602 birds and 1,270 bats in the first six months of operation – averaged over a year that would work out to 14 birds per turbine per year and of course even more bats.
So proponents of wind farms should be required to do more than just conduct wind and weather studies; they should also be required to conduct reasonably long-term environmental surveys to determine the likelihood of birds and bats being impacted by the development.
In addition, there are a number of features (technological and operating) that need to be incorporated in modern wind farms. These range from bird detecting radars which can shut down the turbines if large numbers of birds are approaching, to restrictions on operating hours so that the turbines are shut down when bats are likely to be present.
Of course, there is a visual impact as well. A modern large wind turbine is approximately the same size as a Boeing 747; just imagine a large number of 747s whirling about like pinwheels and you have some idea of the scope of a wind farm. Currently operating wind farms in the world occupy between 23 acres (rock bottom minimum) and 400 acres per megawatt of installed capacity. Being very generous and assuming that the Shinish Creek projects will be at the lower end of the scale, this means that each will occupy at least 400-500 acres and possibly much more.
Wind power is here to stay, but the environmental downsides need to be taken seriously. It is not sufficient to merely study whether the wind blows sufficiently before building every project that is proposed.
Robert Handfield is past-president of the South Okanagan Naturalists’ Club.
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