A question raised by many people on either side of the wind turbine is why the turbines must be built on land.
Offshore wind farms exist in other parts of the world, and in some ways they seem like an ideal solution to the problem of “not in my backyard.” Ontario boasts thousands of kilometres of shoreline along the Great Lakes and elsewhere, much of it thinly settled and not in specific demand for tourism.
More to the point, winds blowing over the Great Lakes tend to be more uniform and constant that those blowing over land. Yet, in early 2011, Ontario declared a moratorium on offshore turbines, citing a need for more research on the environmental and health impacts of offshore farms.
Since that time, various reports have been presented to the government, examining the potential effects of water-based turbines on wildlife, terrain and natural processes. The filed reports provide suggestions to reduce the impact of construction. They conclude that turbines built according to these safe practices would have minimal ongoing impact.
“If appropriate precautionary measures are taken to avoid or mitigate the impacts of potential harmful or disturbing activities… offshore wind power generation within the Great Lakes has the potential to be implemented with minimal impacts on the aquatic ecosystem and in an environmentally sustainable manner,” reads a report on marine life filed in 2011 by Sarah Nienhuis and Erin Dunlop.
A report on turbine construction effect son physical processes such as sedimentation does not provide as clear an endorsement. It does state that extensive offshore turbine research has been done in Europe. And, contrary to statements from the provincial government, these results are applicable to freshwater lakes, aside from the problem of seasonal ice. Finally, it points out that European studies indicate the impact of wind turbines on physical processes is “negligible.”
“Impact assessments at existing offshore wind farms in Europe have generally estimated the impacts on the marine physical processes on the order of single digit percentages – these impacts are generally applicable to potential Great Lakes applications,” reads the 2011 report from W.F. Baird & Associates. “Specific to individual offshore wind farms proposed or in‐place, cumulative effects have been assessed, however, the cumulative effects upon marine physical processes have generally been declared negligible.”
Despite these reports, the Liberal government is standing firmly behind their offshore moratorium. The News contacted the Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) for more information on the conclusion of the filed reports and on ongoing research, and were told to speak with Jim Bradley, Environment Minister and MPP for St. Catharines. When reached for an interview, Bradley initially referred the reporter back to the MNR.
“They’re really trying to establish the effect of wind turbines on coastal processes and on fisheries,” he said. “You may wish to contact the MNR.”
When informed that MNR staff had directed enquires to his office, Bradley restated the initial reasons given for the moratorium in 2011. He said European studies are not applicable to Ontario because their wind farms are built in saltwater conditions.
“More research and science was needed before Ontario could move forward, as offshore wind development in fresh water is still in the early ages of development, unlike land turbines that we have around the world in great numbers,” said Bradley. “I can only think of one other fresh water turbine, and that was in Sweden.”
In 2008, a plan by Toronto Hydro to install 60 turbines near Scarborough foundered in the face of strong public resistance, before finally being quelled by the provincial moratorium. Another offshore project, proposed by Trillium Power for construction near Kingston, was also quashed by the moratorium, leading to a $2.25 billion lawsuit against the province. That lawsuit was dismissed in 2012, but clearly indicates that corporations are not just interested in land-based turbines.
Past inquiries directed to the minister’s office about the results of three complete studies received a blank reply that “science reports are not government policy.” Bradley said his ministry and the MNR needed to continue their research, and await results of ongoing U.S. research in Lake Erie, before making a decision. Bradley is unwilling to hazard a guess as to when that research might be completed.
“There’s very little in the world that’s been done with freshwater, and even not that much offshore. The overwhelming experience seems to be land based, and in a variety of countries,” he said. “That’s why we’re waiting for these studies to be done. I’m not aware of a timeline for completion at this time from the MNR.”