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Do your research: A briefing on wind turbine spin

The only claim I have to some expertise on windmills is my ancestry. The Dutch have some 1,000-years of experience living in and around windmills, but some Ontarians now claim modern upgrades of these revolving machines are a threat to nearby humans and other creatures. Writing well on the subject requires considering the concerns expressed by dissenters while still keeping the bigger picture of the imperative for renewable energy in mind.

Wind turbines generate electricity as well as a significant amount of spin. Information flows from numerous sources, and judging the credibility and vested interests of each demands some discernment. This article builds on my previous investigation (“Wind turbines divide communities and twist green energy plans,” June 13) by introducing some basic issues in the wind turbine debate, including unspoken economic costs, health concerns, the environmental impact, media influence and the force of government policy.

The internet is full of information on wind turbines – the critics being more readily accessible than the promoters. There are at least 50 different anti-turbine groups in Ontario (there are 170 such groups in Denmark), and they can be accessed through Wind Concerns Ontario website. Wind turbine developers’ resources are harder to find and make less spectacular headlines. Academic literature requires even more careful investigation to locate and interpret well.

Contested economics
Right now, the Independent Electricity System Operator reports that six percent of Ontario’s power is generated by wind, and the percentage is growing. It is important to remember that wind energy is as variable as the wind – its peak production hours are at night when the least electricity is needed. Our power grid can only handle so much unreliable electricity, so wind power must have back-up power generators to compensate for dead wind times. Unfortunately, electricity cannot be stored up for another day – it has to be used or sold as its generated or turned off.

Different think tanks have released reports biased in opposite directions. The Pembina Institute, an advocate for renewable energy, released a fact sheet this year arguing that the wind turbine industry is “learning by doing” and the cost of producing electricity from wind has dropped 65 percent since 1985.

The Fraser Institute released a 42-page report on the Green Energy Act in 2013 (written by former CRC attendee Ross McKitrick) arguing that wind turbines may in fact increase overall air emissions due to backup power requirements, are ten-times costlier than retrofit coal-fired plants, and negatively affect the economy of businesses and households by inflating hydro costs. These arguments, if sound, certainly take the wind out of unchecked enthusiasm for this alternative energy source.

Harm or annoyance?
The research on human harm can be interpreted in multiple ways. Some complain of what Dr. Nina Pierpont calls in a self-published report “Wind Turbine Syndrome.” “It’s torture,” some say, without intending exaggeration.

Carmen Krogh was educated in pharmacology, but has had a number of roles in health care institutions over the decades. She is also an advocate for the anti-wind turbine groups, writing and speaking on human harm from wind turbines as a board member of The Society for Wind Vigilance. She is suspicious of government statements that assure the public about the safety of turbines, citing turbine noise as an “indirect” cause of harm, as research in other contexts suggest low frequency vibrations are unique, poorly understood and a threat to vulnerable populations like babies and children. She emphasizes the subjective side of the issue, defining noise as any “unwanted sound,” and claiming that it has caused undue hardship and even “ruined lives.”

On the other hand, many people live near turbines and barely notice their presence or sound. The Chief Medical Officer of Health in Ontario released a report in May 2010 that while there is anecdotal evidence that wind turbines are associated with dizziness, headaches and sleep disturbance with some who live near them, the scientific evidence (peer-reviewed journals) show no causal link between the two. The swooshing sound can annoy some people, but even the low frequency sound and infrasound are beneath levels that would cause health concerns.

I did my own unscientific test on the noise levels of a wind turbine. Passing by a wind farm in New York state, I left my car to listen for the sound of a turbine about 300 feet away. I could not hear it unless the traffic on the country highway abated, and then it was only barely discernable. Studies show traffic to be significantly louder than wind turbines, and houses are considerably closer to roads than turbines.

There may be a nocebo effect at work – a neutral stimulus generating a negative human response. An Australian study led by Simon Chapman of the University of Sydney reported in 2013 that complaints about wind turbines are strongly associated with the rise of anti-wind turbine awareness campaigns.

This may be true, but some consider it uncharitable to mention. An article in Social Science and Medicine in 2015, using surveys and interviews, demonstrates that some neighbours do self-report psycho-social stress related to wind turbines, and they give evidence that neighbourliness decreases and community conflicts arise with turbine development. The researchers suggest that the discussion “move beyond debating simply whether or not ‘annoyance’ represents a ‘health impact’ and instead focus on ways to minimize and attenuate these feelings of threat (risk) and stress at the community level.” Belittling neighbour concerns only “adds insult to injury.”

Environmental impact
While solar power has its own logistical problems, it does not produce the same level of public controversy. People complain turbines are visual pollution (“monstrosities”) that violate Aboriginal lands, disturb earthworms, scare off seagulls, threaten 200 other wildlife species, leak oil, blow dust, create disposal issues when they are old, flicker the sun’s rays like a strobe light, and can potentially throw damaged blades hundreds of metres. Most troubling of all, the lack of thorough research, some worry, turns family farms into risky scientific experiments.

The environmental impact has inconclusive evidence. For example, Gord Miller, the former Environment Commissioner of Ontario (ECO), reported in 2011 that 0.01 percent of all unnatural bird deaths are killed by turbines. That’s 2.5 birds per turbine per year. Meanwhile, 80 percent of such bird deaths are caused by buildings, powerlines, cats and cars. Bats are a larger concern, as almost 1/3rd of bat deaths are caused by turbines. He stresses the importance of environmental assessment before erecting the turbines, and recommends turbines be set back from sensitive areas. The ECO is also requiring post-construction monitoring with set bird/bat mortality thresholds, which if breached, require contingency plans for the turbine. Unfortunately, anti-turbine activists claim not enough of these assessments are done, or when they are done, they are done poorly, paid for by eager developers.

One thing is for sure: up to 100 metres in height, once installed, wind turbines are extremely difficult to transplant.

Media spin
Films can sway the public mood on an issue more quickly than written studies and reports, and they are multiplying. Downwind, a documentary produced in 2015 for the Sun News Network, is a concerted effort to cast doubt on the Liberal government’s Green Economy Act. The film features southern Ontario rural dwellers like Norma Schmidt, who left her family home because of the nausea and depression she attributes to the wind turbines by her house. “I cry every day. My heart is broken beyond belief. It has been the largest scam in the history of our lives.”

CBC’s The Doc Zone featured coverage by Ann-Marie MacDonald entitled The Wind Rush in 2013. Not as singularly negative as Downwind, it documents the growing resistance to wind turbines in Ontario, showing similar critiques arising in Denmark, the global capital of wind turbine development. It reports, however, that because windmills in Alberta are so far from people’s homes, there is very little anti-turbine activism there. This suggests at least some rancor can be avoided.

 

Government sets boundaries, supports industry
As an innovative culture, we are indeed “learning as we go,” although governments certainly have the most directive influence. Setback requirements are the biggest concern of community activists. The Ministry of the Environment established new regulations for wind turbine projects in 2009, including a setback requirement of 550 metres, although the adequacy of that distance is contested (Halifax regional council requires a 1 km setback). Turbine applicants are also now required to provide written notice of their plans to all neighbours, including the municipality and local Aboriginal communities. This includes posting notice at least twice in a local paper. Significantly, say activists, they are not required to respond to the feedback they receive.

The provincial government keeps shifting incentives. The Feed-In Tariff (FIT) program (which pays extra for wind turbine electricity) has altered to direct more revenue back into the community. In the program’s two most recent updates (FIT3 and FIT4) preference has been given to projects developed by local cooperatives, projects that have Aboriginal ownership, and projects that are located on municipal land or are partly owned by municipalities.

Meanwhile, other government actions undermine local wishes. Wind contracts were recently offered through the Large Renewables Procurement (LRP) program (another green energy revenue program for larger developments) in municipalities that had specifically issued council motions opposing more local green energy development. In response, Deputy Premier Deb Matthews was quoted as saying last March: “The local voice does matter, but we are not prepared to give people a veto. We have a provincial interest in producing renewable energy.”

Premier Kathleen Wynne says the local good must be balanced by the “greater good.” It is unfortunate that the local and the global goods are being pitted against each other. It seems like common sense that policies which distribute the financial rewards of wind turbines among multiple local parties – including those who have no turbines directly on their own property – hold the most promise for “glocal” peace.

The planet is choking from fumes, but the solution needs to be collaborative to be truly successful.

Building turbines, building trust
The question persists: how best to distribute the costs and rewards of this “new” power source? As infamous agricultural engineer Robert Chamber quipped: “we all love bacon, but we don’t want to live near the pig barn.”

If one approaches the debate with some degree of sensitivity and reason, the way forward need not be an unmanageable puzzle. I was sent an insightful paper written by a Trent University student for his Environmental and Resource Studies class. He argues the primary cause of contention is not NIMBYism (Not In My Backyard) but rather consistently poor implementation processes that have excluded neighbours, municipalities and research groups from the table. At the heart of this issue, he insists, is a deep distrust, and such feelings can best be overcome by due diligence that honours the authority of the municipality, pursues collaborative rather than confrontational methods, and keeps control of the projects in the hands of local private owners who show concern for public interest, rather than leave primary agency with large foreign investment companies and provincial regulating bodies.

A wind turbine developer, commenting on a draft of this article, took issue with what he perceived as an over-emphasis on local control. “Setting reasonable regulations for wind turbines requires significant technical expertise that local governments do not have. Municipalities cannot just say ‘No’ and enact regulations that are impossible to meet.”

The planet is choking from fumes, but the solution needs to be collaborative to be truly successful. Local trust and understanding builds when a process is considerate and fair. Governments urgently want to pursue alternative energy sources and they provide incentives for those willing to invest in them. Developers and landowners see great opportunity here. Some citizens and communities most affected by wind turbines are asking that more research be done, and that in the meantime turbines be setback farther from residences.

You might say more setback can be a leap forward.

Peter wants to thank the many voices that spoke into this article – from all sides – and got his gears turning on the issues.

  • Peter is Executive Director of Global Scholars Canada, a transnational guild of Christian scholars. He preaches, teaches and writes – having written columns, editorials, news and features for CC since 1997. His book The Subversive Evangelical: The Ironic Charisma of an Irreligious Megachurch (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2019) is an ethnographic journey into the life of a megachurch and its “irreligious” charismatic leader. He loves stories that cross boundaries while maintaining integrity.

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