SOUTH MOUNTAIN – Dairy farmers are familiar with the negative health effects of wayward electrical energy: Stray voltage can be the bane of keeping milk cows as productive and healthy as possible.
Armed with this understanding, a retired dairy farmer now working as a stray-voltage dairy consultant – who once leased some of his own land to a wind-power developer several years ago – is drawing attention to another kind of unwanted electrical interference he attributes to the “cheap” DC-to-AC power inverters employed by wind- and solar-farm installations.
David Colling maintains that developers’ reliance on such equipment to process their final output of alternating current (AC) feeds a problematic high frequency into the power grid and the internal wiring of nearby homes and buildings.
This “dirty electricity” can sicken people and disturb animals, he suggested in a late-November address to local wind-power opponents gathered at South Mountain’s agricultural hall.
Instead of the smooth-sided “sine wave” expected of a clean AC source, the contaminated current shows a jaggedness when measured on an oscilloscope, according to Colling, who says he turned against the wind industry after a developer in his Ripley, Ontario, area, briefly hired him to measure the phenomenon, then refused to acknowledge a problem when he became an advocate for five affected families.
“It is imperative that both wind turbines and solar installations generate as close to a pure 60Hz sine wave as possible to minimize adverse effects of transient harmonics to both equipment and human health,” said the guest speaker, citing research by an associate professor of Environmental & Resource Studies at Trent University, Dr. Magna Havas.
Carried into buildings through the neutral wire, the unwanted frequency then radiates from the wiring inside the structure, according to Colling. He relayed anecdotes about several families in his area whose health symptoms – including migraines and ear aches – suddenly disappeared after the wind company disconnected them from the grid and supplied power with on-site generators. “They tried to prove me wrong, and it backfired.”
The company finally bought out the homeowners, he said, assuring the audience that no other Ontario wind developer would ever follow that precedent again.
The Township of North Dundas has seen an anti-wind movement spring up in response to proposed turbine projects that have yet to be built. The local debate has tended to revolve around the usual alleged health effects of low-frequency noise and light flicker, as well as concerns about esthetics and impact on property values.
Colling’s late-November visit- spearheaded by wind-power opponents led by Chesterville’s Theresa Bergeron – was the first local event to highlight the dirty-electricity angle from a health perspective.
He told the group about finding a direct link between the spinning of turbine blades and the frequency level on the wiring of several homes in his area where individuals reported feeling sick because of nearby windmills.
The telltale jagged “inverter waveform” appeared whenever the turbines were running, he said, showing a PowerPoint slide. “It’s very clear.”
He used a provincial website to confirm when local turbines were putting power into the grid.
“It directly correlates. So when they tell you, ‘Oh we don’t cause any stray voltage,’ they’re lying,” he said of project proponents. “You must understand the people you’re dealing with are just PR people….”
According to Colling, there’s only one type of expensive inverter, made by Siemens, that ought to be used to create the AC outputted by wind and solar farms. But project developers choose less costly options, he said.
One family in his area spent the summer sleeping in a fifth-wheel trailer beside their house because they couldn’t rest inside the building. Colling helped them install a system to filter the incoming hydro supply, but they still “have to kill the power at the house at night. It’s the only way they can sleep.” The family sold the place in September to an Amish buyer who took down the incoming hydro lines entirely.
“I’ve got another family up there, the only way they can sleep at night is to cut the power into the bedroom,” he said.
He argued that dairy cattle receive better health care on this issue than do humans, as health authorities discount people’s complaints as unproven by default.
He claimed to have spoken with insiders at Ontario Hydro, and the Ministry of the Environment, and even the wind industry itself, who applaud the message he has delivered in over 30 talks across the province.
Dirty electricity has also captured the attention of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture, which held a well-attended seminar on that subject and stray voltage last month in Listowel.
Advice to farmers
Colling also acknowledged that yearly per-turbine lease payments have now risen into the $50,000 range for participating landowners. But he contrasted that with the $500,000 he said the turbine owners annually net on their 20-year power contracts. And he warned farmers of the pitfalls of signing on the dotted line, starting with the construction process.
“I can tell you horror stories about how they cut drainage tiles and never hooked them up again. Because often, in some of the areas I come from, it’s absentee ownership. And no one cares, right? And the subcontractor’s in there just to bury [power] lines,” said Colling, who has since sold his land that was involved in a turbine land lease.
“So I tell people – any construction they do on that farm, make sure somebody’s standing with them there all the time. I don’t care if you have to hire somebody because if you don’t, and you try to fix that tile after, good luck.”
His 2004 land lease was only four pages long, he said, adding that newer documents run into the dozens of pages. The leases now explicitly state that the landowner knows the potential for nuisance from turbines hosted on their property and waives their right to complain about it, he added.
A member of the audience piped up to argue this could expose farmers to lawsuits, and Colling – who isn’t a lawyer – replied he wouldn’t be surprised if that became more common.
Anyone looking at leasing land to a renewable energy developer should hire a specialized corporate lawyer to go over the agreement, he cautioned.
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