I have always been a strong supporter of renewable energy. While energy conservation should be the top priority, renewable energy is an important part of the effort to move us away from the use of fossil fuels for electricity generation. But as I argue in my annual report that will be tabled at the Ontario legislature today, the province’s efforts to increase the use of wind power must be balanced against the equally valid goals of protecting Ontario’s wildlife and natural environment.
The Ontario government has already established requirements for siting wind farms that consider the potential impacts that turbines may have on natural features and wildlife. For example, wind turbines are not a major cause of bird deaths, but birds can be injured or killed in flight after colliding with wind turbine blades or towers. Similarly, bats can be injured or killed due to collisions with wind turbines or by the rapid changes in air pressure near the tips of spinning blades.
That’s why the provincial government requires proponents of larger wind farms to undertake assessments of how their developments will potentially affect nearby natural features, including wildlife habitat. Owners of larger projects that can generate more than 50 kilowatts of electricity must monitor the turbines’ impact on birds and bats for three years after construction, and bring in mitigation measures if the turbines cause a significant number of bird and bat deaths.
But these guidelines don’t go far enough. There are two areas where the Ontario government needs to beef up the rules to enhance protections.
First, the Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) should prohibit any new wind farms in the 70 “Important Bird Areas” (IBAs) in Ontario. IBAs are a network of sites, including Long Point Peninsula and Marshes, Point Pelee and the Leslie Street Spit, that have been identified, using internationally agreed criteria, as being important for the conservation of essential bird populations and migratory corridors. MNR already acknowledges that location is a key factor in preventing bird deaths from wind turbines. It would just make sense to extend the logic to exclude new wind power development in IBAs, which represent some of the most significant bird habitat in the province and cover only about 2 per cent of Ontario.
Second, the province needs to increase protection for migratory bats, which are the bats most at risk of being killed by wind turbines. These long-distance travellers account for 75 per cent of all wind turbine deaths for bats. But the MNR guidelines focus instead on non-migrating populations, with rules preventing turbines near caves, abandoned mines, buildings and barns where local bats hibernate.
I believe the Ministry of Natural Resources should move quickly to establish criteria for identifying and evaluating bat migratory stopover sites, so that wind power developers can assess and alleviate potential impacts to bats in those areas or, even better, avoid establishing wind farms in those areas altogether.
These threats to bats couldn’t come at a worse time. Millions of bats in the eastern U.S. and Canada have already died from “white nose syndrome,” a condition characterized by fungus that grows on infected bats while they hibernate. White nose syndrome is being described as “the worst wildlife health crisis in memory.” MNR acknowledges it has the potential to devastate the bat population in Ontario.
Finally, the Ontario government needs to take into account the cumulative impact that wind turbines have on both birds and bats. Even if the impact from one wind power project is relatively low, the cumulative impact of multiple wind projects in an area, when added to other sources of bird and bat mortality, could cause considerable deaths without triggering any remedial measures.
I would be naive if I didn’t realize that these recommendations will encourage the vocal opponents of wind power to say I oppose it, or that I want it severely restricted. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Non-carbon based sources of energy are crucial for our continued survival as a species. And to demonize wind power because of its impact on birds is misguided, especially since the mortality rate for birds is low when compared to other sources of bird deaths such as collisions with buildings and power lines, or being eaten by cats.
While the societal benefits of wind power are substantial, rigorous guidelines are needed to protect bats and birds. And since the impact on wildlife is one of the reasons people oppose wind power, better protection might, if we take the opponents at face value, actually increase public support for renewable energy.
Gord Miller is Ontario’s environmental commissioner.
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