When you’re driving north from Kincardine to Inverhuron in Ontario, you can see a skyline of red warning lights atop the wind turbines flashing against the night sky. This is farmland. There is a lot of dairy in Bruce County, and even more beef. And over the last four years, there’s been a lot of wind farming, too.
At first, the arrival of the wind farms made a lot of sense. Using turbines to generate electricity was already working well in the West, in places like Alberta, California and Texas. And wind turbines had sprung up all over Europe. In Ontario, they were willing to pay farmers to put windmills on their land. The wind was blowing anyway. It was like free money.
But it’s never that easy. Grassroots groups started getting angry at the turbines and the government and pretty much anything to do with harvesting the wind. I decided to look into a story about wind energy not being as green as advertised. These people had been accused of NIMBY-ism and I figured they were annoyed at the turbines because they spoiled the view. When I saw their marches on the news, I admit I was skeptical.
I had grown up on a farm myself and I saw merit in getting some extra income from a wind lease. Also, people were saying the turbines were making them sick and I just couldn’t see how that could be so.
But it didn’t take long for me to realize that there were problems here. It started with Ontario’s 2009 Green Energy Act. Premier Dalton McGuinty wanted to close the province’s coal-fired power plants and replace them with wind. Laudable enough. But in order to expedite the switchover to greener power, the provincial government opted to bypass municipalities with the approval process. If you’re a wind developer, that’s great: less red tape.
But if you are a small-town councillor or a private landowner living next to a 30-storey turbine within earshot of your house, you’re out of luck.
To me, that was pretty stunning in itself. But then there was the issue of the turbines making people sick. One of the worst affected was retired nurse Norma Schmidt. Her 19-acre home is surrounded by a 110-turbine farm near Underwood.
“At different times, they sound like different things,” says Norma. “They can sound like a jet engine. They can sound like a swoosh, swoosh, swoosh and stop. And you’ve got to realize if you hear a swoosh, swoosh – that’s OK. But if you hear a swoosh, swoosh and stop and a swoosh, swoosh and stop, this is torture!”
It was torture because Norma wasn’t getting any sleep – first for days on end, then weeks and months. She was getting severe headaches, nausea and vertigo. She could no longer work and finally she left her house.
So I spoke with Dr. Hazel Lynn, the medical officer of health for Bruce and Grey counties. Lynn said that a large number of patients were seeing their GPs about a surprisingly consistent checklist of symptoms. And in each case, the sick feelings started once the nearby turbines were switched on. Similar reports were coming from other counties.
But the province stuck to a 2010 report from its own medical officer of health, who said there was no evidence in the scientific literature that proved wind farms could be detrimental to the people. What the report failed to point out, however, was that no new science had been commissioned to make sure the large turbines were safe in and among rural populations. And this was the part that shocked me: Ontario went from 10 turbines 10 years ago to 1,200 last year without any real research into potential health issues.
Wind turbines’ effect on human health is not an issue in the West, where there is more open space than in Ontario. They are built farther away from houses. But as I worked away on this story, I heard a number of people ask why wind was such a problem here, when it was working so well in Europe, where there is less space. It’s a good point, so I went to Denmark, because the Danes are the pioneers of modern wind farming.
The first turbines that went up in Denmark in the 1990s were small, measured in kilowatts rather than megawatts. They didn’t make much noise. But Denmark is a small country and space is at a premium, so they started putting the turbines offshore, where each generation of machines got bigger and bigger.
Offshore wind farming was a great solution, but it was also expensive. Within a decade, the wind developers realized they could put the new big machines up onshore for half the price of setting them out in the sea. So that’s what they did. And now there are 177 anti-wind groups in Denmark, and Danes are complaining of the same health issues as people in Ontario.
So is it real? Do the turbines make people sick? Well, put yourself in the position of anyone forced to live next door to a wind farm in Ontario. You’ve invested a huge chunk of your life earnings in a rural property, then someone comes along and puts up a giant turbine. There is nothing you can do about it. Your property value drops. The anxiety, added to the sense of helplessness and the lack of recourse, and then the noise: All of it leads to endless sleepless nights. And that is a serious health risk.
The government in Ontario took a technology perfected in open spaces, away from people’s homes, and plunked it down among family farms. And then they expected it to work fine without any problems. They were wrong.
Ontario filmmaker Andrew Gregg’s documentary Wind Rush will air tonight on CBC TV’s Doc Zone.
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