The provincial government’s moratorium on wind energy development, which has been in place since 2007, was lifted in April 2022. Now, the government is calling for the submission of Nominations of Areas of Interest for wind energy projects in the province, on available crown land. World Energy GH2 has proposed the development of a wind farm located on the Port au Port peninsula. The project, titled Nujio’Qonik GH2, is proposing to make “cost-effective green hydrogen/ammonia from wind power and will undergo an environmental assessment, to receive approval from the Minister of Environment and Climate Change.
According to the environmental assessment registration, the project will consist of a “0.5-gigawatt hydrogen facility at the Port of Stephenville, up to 164 turbines for 1 GW of wind power generation, and associated transmission and supporting infrastructure.” The project site has excellent wind resources, according to World Energy GH2, “with onshore wind speeds equivalent to those observed at some offshore sites globally.”
In this two-part series, The Independent will talk to experts and look at what the potential environmental impacts might be if the Nujio’Qonik GH2 wind farm project goes ahead. Part one will focus on how the construction of the wind farm will affect the land and ecosystems on the Port au Port peninsula. Part two will take a closer look at what green hydrogen actually is, its ability to reduce or increase emissions, and its role in managing the climate crisis.
Hope is Gone with the Wind
For those who may have been hoping for the government to pursue renewable energy development, the wind power from the Nujio’Qonik project feels like a breath of fresh air. It also offers hope for the future of alternative energy in NL–especially after the federal government approved Equinor’s Bay du Nord offshore oil project in April 2022.
That project remains controversial due to the long haul of emissions it will generate. It is set to begin pumping oil as early as 2028, which is three years after the IPCC recommends greenhouse emissions should peak. However, many praised the project for its potential to generate jobs and boost NL’s economy.
In light of this, the proposed wind farm on the west coast already seems like a better energy development project. Not only will it also generate jobs and create a valuable energy export to boost the province’s economy, but it will also potentially spearhead more green-energy development in Newfoundland and Labrador.
However, Port au Port residents and researchers are concerned about the wind farm and how the construction will impact their community and local environment. Unfortunately, the science is mixed on wind power and hydrogen as a green energy alternative to oil and gas.
So, What are the Concerns?
At a municipality meeting that took place on July 6th, Port au Port residents expressed many concerns, namely how the turbines and their construction will impact their day-to-day life, and their ability to use and enjoy the land.
The project will undergo a year-long environmental study to look at the effects the wind turbines will have on the flora, fauna, and the overall conditions of the land where they are placed. These considerations are not new, and studies have already been conducted elsewhere to analyze the environmental implications of wind turbines.
Research on the environmental impacts of wind energy has demonstrated that the only emissions produced by wind energy are during its construction and maintenance. The amount is not nearly as significant as the amount of CO2 emitted by non-renewable energy sources.
For some community members, however, it is not the emissions that are of primary concern. They highlight that the areas where World Energy GH2 proposes to build the wind turbines should be classified as conservation sites, such as the Blow Me Down Mountains, because they have a unique landscape that is home to its own wildlife.
The turbines’ impact on the land depends on the project’s planned spacing and configuration. The land preparation, the construction of turbines, the road access and placement of transmission lines will need to be considered. Community members also took to social media to show concern for the amount of road construction required for the project in the area.
The infrastructure itself should not take up much physical land space, but the turbines must have gaps between them. The project is proposing 164 turbines; the amount of space required between each turbine will add up significantly. Nevertheless, research finds that wind energy still has a smaller land footprint compared to other energy systems.
In addition, some community members are concerned about the potential noise pollution produced by the turbines. Noise can be generated by its mechanical components and by the airflow that passes through each turbine. Research shows that the latter can be reduced by blade speed and design, indicating that there is potential for sound disturbance to be reduced if World GH2 considers this in their design plans.
The Ecosystem on the Port au Port Peninsula is Unique
Recently, Michael Burzynski shared a letter to Premier Andrew Furey on Facebook, expressing concern for the rare ecosystem and its wildlife present on the Port au Port peninsula, and calling for an extension on public comments.
Michael Burzynski is an eco-scientist and naturalist, and co-author of the book “Exploring the Limestone Barrens of Newfoundland and Labrador” with his friend Henry Mann. He has gone up and down the coast of the Port au Port peninsula with other botanists, and researched the ecologies of plants and animals on the Barrens. Burzynski retired from Parks Canada 10 years ago. Since his retirement, he and his wife have been heavily involved in the anti-fracking movement.
“There are little scraps of exposed limestone along the coast that have some of the rarest plants and some of the most interesting scenery in the province,” Burzynski explained to The Independent. “There are, in total, maybe about 40 square kilometres of Limestone Barrens in Newfoundland and Labrador,” he continued. “That’s about 0.01 percent of the surface area of this province. And those barrens contain a great, great number of the rarest and most unusual plants that we have in the province. So, it’s really important to protect them.”
His concern is that the Nujio’Qonik GH2 project is proposed to be built over the Limestone Barrens: “Just north of St. George, which are spectacular barrens with several plants that are found nowhere else in our province.”
“And it’s not just the fact that the towers are going to be built in this very rare and very easily damaged habitat” he added, “but the towers will involve bulldozing and gravel quarrying and road construction, and electrical pylons to be built and hydro corridors with lanes to be run through them. And those roads will be left open for ATVs and anyone to use. So that full length is under the barrens. And those plants can be wiped out very, very, very easily. So those little scraps of limestone barren on the Port au Port, they don’t look big, they don’t look impressive until you actually start looking at what’s actually living there, and that is my concern.”
Rare and endangered plants, including McKenzie Sweetvetch and Lindley’s Aster, can be found in areas of the Peninsula where the wind farm is proposed to be constructed.
Furthermore, Burzynski believes the Port au Port proposal is just a foot in the door for World Energy GH2: “the proposal leaves out even larger areas that they’re interested in, which are the tops of the Lewis hills, the Blow Me Down Mountains, and the Anguille mountains. And those are prime wilderness areas…” he adds, “those are beautiful, untouched, serpentine barrens. They may not have limestone, but they have serpentinized rock and serpentinized rock is an even more peculiar habitat substrate for plants.”
“So these are important wilderness areas that the province is considering licensing over to a private company for private power production. And it is not like the power is going into the Newfoundland grid, it’s going to be used by the company for private profit.”
The Independent spoke with John Risley, director of World Energy GH2, and asked if there are any plans so far to mitigate damages to the Limestone Barrens.
Risley responded: “Our undertakings to the Province require us to carry out a plant study which will identify potentially harmful impacts to rare species. Once these have been identified and compared to our proposed wind turbine sites there will be mitigation discussions with the province which could require us to relocate the offending sites or take proactive steps to propagate the particular species, as we understand has been the requirement for the Atlantic Minerals people at their site.”
However, when The Independent asked Burzynski if it would be possible to even mitigate damages, he responded that “It really isn’t.”
Right now it is hard for people to get to the Limestone Barrens, which is why they are still there. “These flat areas of limestone bedrock have been broken up by millennia of freezing and thawing every autumn and spring, which creates a thin layer of gravel. It looks like a perfect place for driving an ATV, or any other kind of vehicle because it’s flat,” Burzynski explained, “but when people drive on them, they destroy these plants that are nowhere else in the province.”
“They also destroy tiny trees growing there, junipers and small spruces themselves, which in some cases are hundreds of years old. And with one pass of an ATV track over one of them stems and that thing’s dead.”
“These are the last refuges of these plants, and especially with global warming, there’s no room to go. They are stuck in the Barrens, and you can’t transplant them to any other part of the province, because they won’t survive.”
For Burzynski, the damages cannot really be mitigated, because the plants need to grow in a certain environment that only the Barrens can provide.
And What about Wildlife?
Some studies indicate that wind turbines can disturb flying animal populations, especially birds. However, research shows that deforestation and urban expansion generate much higher levels of bird fatalities than wind turbines. In addition, other studies find that wind turbines kill 95 percent fewer birds than fossil fuels.
Several factors can contribute to birds colliding with wind turbines. They can be attracted to the light emitted from them, while poor weather conditions that cause birds to fly at lower altitudes may increase the chances of collisions. Then, there is the design of the tower itself. Turbines built lower to the ground can interfere with nesting birds, and their high rotation speeds can cause mortalities. To protect bird populations on the Port au Port peninsula, the World GH2 Inc should consider these factors.
And, according to Burzynski, there are woodland caribou–which are almost extinct in other areas of Canada outside of Newfoundland and Labrador–and arctic hare in the other areas World Energy GH2 are interested in, including the Blow Me Down mountains and the Lewis Hills.
“So these are important wilderness areas that the province is considering, licensing over to a private company for private power production, that is not going into the Newfoundland grid, but is going to be used by the company for private profit.”
For residents on the west coast of Newfoundland, and environmental experts like Burzynski, the project proposes massive destruction to rare ecosystems that are essential to the identity and character of the Port au Port peninsula. It is fundamental for World GH2 to consider if what will be lost is really worth what will be gained.
There is no question for Burzynski that entire ecosystems will be lost if the project happens. The urgent questions for the provincial government are: do the benefits to the people of Newfoundland and Labrador outweigh the drawbacks caused by environmental destruction? And more to the point, are they mutually exclusive?
The potential environmental impacts are not the only concern. Some from the scientific community have reservations about hydrogen production and its emissions, which will be explored in part two.
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