Critics call Ontario’s wind farms ‘a disaster’ in rural areas but Energy Minister Chiarelli says government is working with municipalities
Ontario is making major changes to its growing wind energy sector, providing municipalities more say over where turbines will be located and more revenue from projects. But despite changes in provincial regulation, anti-wind energy groups say the government continues to ignore health concerns associated with the source.
Ontario is the provincial leader in installed wind energy capacity with 15 operational farms and enough energy to power 600,000 homes, becoming a “mainstream resource” for the province’s power grid. But although there has been a noticeable decrease in greenhouse gas emissions within the province as the last coal-fired plant is set to close by the end of 2014—as well as a corresponding decrease in GHG emission-related illnesses such as asthma according to provincial Energy Minister Bob Chiarelli—the Ontario government’s emphasis on facilitating the expansion of wind power projects has raised concerns from local groups who claim that the strategy is both undemocratic and harmful to human health.
Wind Concerns Ontario expressed their view that some wind power projects’ locations in the province in the last seven years “has been a disaster for rural Ontario,” in a July 5 release, citing a lack of respect for promised consultation processes prior to the passage of the GEA as well as the absence of any “proper cost-benefit analysis or business case study done for wind power generation.”
“In short, while wind power is currently an insignificant source of power generation for Ontario and even when currently planned projects are fully implemented, its contribution will still be very small. Nevertheless, its impact on rural-small urban communities is huge.”
But Mr. Chiarelli said that as part of the government’s mandated three-year review of the province’s long-term energy plan, a number of steps have been developed to increase both municipal discretion over renewable energy siting processes—as well as municipal revenue from projects.
Mr. Chiarelli told The Hill Times that the government “made a decision that large wind projects—that’s those over 500 kilowatts—will have a separate procurement process,” from other renewable projects, one that involves the implementation of a ‘request-for-proposal’ (RFP) regulation.
“The RFP process will designate the geography where the siting should take place—it will be larger than one municipality for example,” Mr. Chiarelli said. “And it will have a provision that, as a condition to submit to the RFP, [energy developers] will have had to have demonstrated a very strong connection to the municipal sector.”
Mr. Chiarelli added: “That is virtually going to guarantee that there will be peace with the municipalities.”
He also outlined a number of other incentives for municipal participation in the renewable energy sector, including making it easier for cities to become equity partners in wind energy projects and provisions for increased tax and assessment revenues from turbines. “And that will be retroactive—it includes existing turbines as well,” Mr. Chiarelli added.
In addition to their grievances regarding siting processes, anti-wind energy groups have also expressed concerns over what they believe to be the harmful health effects associated with living and working in close proximity to wind turbines.
“People are complaining of adverse health effects—a lot of them are related to sleep deprivation, that’s probably the simplest thing you can look at,” Jane Wilson said, president of Wind Concerns Ontario. “But there’s other problems associated with turbines, and the larger they get, it’s getting to be more of a problem.”
Ms. Wilson said the turbines create “infrasound,” a low frequency vibration. “That is really having a health effect for people too. It sets up kind of an anxiety reaction—like a fight-or-flight kind of thing—and people are experiencing high blood pressure as well as migraine headaches,” she said.
Ms. Wilson also disagreed with the government’s contention that “Ontario is a leader in establishing clear setbacks for renewable energy projects” and that provincial standards for wind projects are “based on the most up-to-date science,” according to the Ministry of the Environment.
“That’s the whole problem—none of this is based on any science,” Ms. Wilson said. “The Ministry of the Environment is not following up and doing any kind of post-operation testing or anything, so people are not being protected at all. … It’s an industrial use of the land—they keep using the term ‘farm’ [in reference to these projects] and that serves their purposes, but the last thing that they are is farms.”
Gideon Forman, executive director of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment, said while there is some criticism about wind farms, most Ontarians support them.
“There are a few loud opponents,” to wind power in rural Ontario he noted, “but in general most people in the province do support [wind powered energy generation] so that’s why the province is going ahead with it,” Mr. Forman told The Hill Times before his appearance at a consultation for Ontario’s mandated long-term energy plan review in Toronto July 30.
Mr. Forman said there has been scientific research done on the effects of wind on human health and there is little concern. “There is some annoyance for some people, but in terms of direct causal link between a wind turbine and human health effects, we just haven’t seen it,” he said.
His association also ran an op-ed in a number of Ontario media outlets, which cites a 2009 Australian study, a 2010 Ontario Chief Medical Officer of Health scientific review, and a 2012 study prepared for the Massachusetts Departments of Public Health and Environmental Protection analysing the potential health effects of wind turbines.
“They all come to similar conclusions that there is no set of health effects that can be called a ‘wind turbine syndrome,’” said Mr. Gideon.
But Ms. Wilson was adamant that many other individuals around the world who also live and work near large wind turbines have similar complaints to residents here in Ontario, complaints which she felt the Ontario Health department is ignoring.
“The wind industry constantly says well there’s no direct health effects, well of course a direct health effect is if one of the blades fell on your head,” said Ms. Wilson.
Wind powered energy generation has now become a “mainstream resource” in the province, as production increased from just under one per cent of overall power generation in 2008 to three per cent in 2012 according to Ontario’s Independent Electricity System Operator (IESO), the body responsible for balancing supply and demand on Ontario’s electricity grid.
“As of August 2013, there are currently 15 operational wind farms across the provincial landscape, the largest of which—in terms of capacity with 200 MW—is Amaranth (also known as Melancthon) located in Melancthon Township. According to the IESO 27 wind projects are scheduled to come in service by Fall 2014, which will add more than 2,700 MW of additional capacity to Ontario’s grid.”
Wind energy production does not produce any GHG emissions, and one megawatt hour of electricity generated by wind energy is equivalent to a reduction of 0.8 to 0.9 tonnes in GHG emissions from coal or diesel electricity production according to Statistics Canada.
The Ontario Liberals have made the modernization of Ontario’s electricity grid a major priority over the course of their nearly decade-long tenure in office so far. The phase-out and eventual elimination of environmentally harmful coal-fired power plants took centre stage early on—as well as the government extensively subsidizing renewable wind energy development.
“The supply situation in Ontario was very troubling in 2003—we had the blackout, we had rolling brown outs in Ontario, we had a decrease in transmission and a decrease in supply,” Mr. Chiarelli said, noting the Ontario Liberal government has rectified these shortcomings.
But the minister admitted that “there were a couple of bumps in the road.”
Mr. Chiarelli alluded to the ongoing controversy surrounding former Ontario premier Dalton McGuinty’s decision to cancel building two natural gas plants in the Greater Toronto Area in 2011, a process which will likely cost taxpayers more than $500-million and has been plagued by numerous attempts by the government to delete email correspondence surrounding the decision.
Mr. McGuinty, who stepped down earlier this year and was replaced by Liberal Premier Kathleen Wynne, oversaw the passage of the Green Energy Act in May 2009. But Mr. Chiarelli said the Ontario government has overhauled the province’s energy sector since 2003.
“We have created about 13,000 megawatts of new electricity, we have built or have completely upgraded 7,500 kilometres of transmission—just that alone is a cost of $9-billion,” he said. “In accomplishing that very significant recovery from an electricity deficit to having a surplus, there were a lot of very significant decisions that were made to get up to speed quickly.”
“It’s a tremendous success story,” he added.
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