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Wind turbines divide communities and twist green energy plans

City-folk cruising to their vacation spots see beauty in the elegant design of the wind turbines that now spin like pinwheels atop the gusty landscapes of our country. Often a light grey against a coloured landscape, they also appear green – as an image of clean, renewable energy. But what many argue is an innovative solution to an energy and pollution problem has created a whole host of new problems for the rural citizens who live among them, including political, medical and – ironically – environmental problems. Since the Ontario Liberal government has pushed an aggressive agenda for wind energy as a key plank in its climate change plan, an explosive debate has ensued in Ontario surrounding the development of wind turbines, one that has divided both communities and Christians.

To understand how communities are faring with the thousands of turbines that have sprung up in the last few years in Ontario, I contacted a number of Christian Reformed turbine owners, turbine developers and turbine protestors. I also connected with some of their pastors, and common to all the conversations was the request for anonymity. “Do not mention my name or my church,” said one pastor. “The wounds are still fresh and I don’t want to open them again.”

The Ontario Liberal government released the Green Energy Act in May 2009, offering electricity purchase contracts to development companies that guarantee long-term above-market rates for renewable energy projects. My investigation revealed land owners can make from $5,000 to $50,000 per turbine per year and the profits are even more lucrative for developers – resulting in what some have called “a gold rush” for wind turbines. Indeed, the drive to install wind turbines has been intense: in 2003 there were only 10 turbines in Ontario; by 2012, there were 1,200. In 2015 there were 2,043, and thousands more are expected to crop up – larger and more efficient than the previous turbines.

Turbines have grown enormous. Some of the latest models in Ontario produce up to 3 MW of power and stretch as high as 150 metres up – the height of a 50-story skyscraper. The good news is they can generate enough power to run 5,000 homes per year, and the energy source is as renewable as the wind. The bad news is that their revolving blades are not universally appreciated.

The average hub height of turbines is 80 metres, equivalent to a 24-story building, but the tallest turbines can reach twice that.

Turbine leaseholders: Didn’t know the controversy
One couple was approached by a wind developer four or five years ago, to consider becoming leaseholders for the development of wind turbines on their land. They had positive inclinations towards wind energy and no awareness of wind action groups and their arguments. They thought about it, prayed about it and consulted with other potential leaseholders. There was no pressure. They signed the 30-page contract and received $1,000 for their commitment with a sense of peace.

A year later they were approved for turbine development on their land and maps for turbine placement were made public. A Christian neighbour then knocked on the door. His tone was angry: “Do you not know how dangerous these are? How can you be a Christian and be part of this? How does this show love to your neighbour? Get out of your lease. Stop the turbines!”

The couple was shocked and confused. The neighbour returned with all kinds of information, insisting that turbines were dangerous to their children and the community.

Anxiety escalated in the community, and encounters were often quite tense. Dissenters to the turbines were organizing, and networking with other anti-turbine groups from other regions. They came with their signs and placards to town meetings and set up booths at county fairs. They took out full-page ads in local papers, urging in large font “It’s Time to Revolt.” The “O” in “revolt” is a silhouette of a wind turbine with a red circle around it and a slash across. They warn people wind turbines will result in a 25-40 percent devaluation in real estate throughout the region.

The municipality feels ill-equipped to challenge the developers as the provincial government did not require municipal consultations at the time, although town meetings have taken place. Public resentment at the perceived imposition is more easily directed at local leaseholders than at a large government bureaucracy.

“The anti-turbine activists were an intimidating presence in town,” the leaseholder couple explained, “and many spoke with a mean spirit.” Some people driving by would roll down their windows and shout “You should be ashamed of yourself! You’re going to pay for this!”

Some residents decided to move away well before the turbines were built. Christian leaseholders received multiple letters and emails from concerned Christians nearby, which warned: “You can’t serve two Masters, God and money,” and that “Love does no harm to its neighbour.” Some media even alluded that farmers who signed contracts had “sold their souls to hell.”  Church leaders were being approached by members on both sides of the issue.

The leaseholder couple’s strategy through all this conflict? Not to be reactive. They have found if they engage critics, the conflict inevitably intensifies, so they have chosen not to respond to the threats and catcalls. They also decline to write defensive letters to the editor in the local paper. “We’ve seen very clearly the wrong way to handle disagreements.”

Not all has been turbulent. They have networked with other Christians who are turbine hosts. They are thankful for their pastor who walked alongside them, as well as some other supportive church members.

Contrary to predictions, “Our real estate around here has actually gone up about 40 percent,” they told me. “Still, if I’d known the anxiety and anger this was going to cause, I wouldn’t have signed up.”

There are currently 6,000 turbines connected to the grid across Canada. (CanWEA)

Turbine developers: The bigger picture
I also talked with a wind turbine developer – someone who plays a role in this drama often one step removed from the local conflicts.

He defended the industry from a number of angles. Yes, some municipalities try to stop development, but that’s not always possible and may not stand up in court. Each municipality has its own rules and different dynamics and it is unfair to generalize too much. The lease contracts are binding because they are the foundation of a project worth millions of dollars. For example, a 2 MW turbine costs $4 to $6 million to install. Developers pay all the costs of the project and make lease payments to the landowner.

Part of the problem, the developer explained, is the high price Ontario has paid for wind energy, which has created the impression that wind is expensive. The more recent competitively-awarded projects are at dramatically lower prices – prices that more closely reflect the real cost of wind energy.

He expressed some disappointment with the response of organized Christianity to environmental stewardship. “I find it striking – the number of Christians that don’t believe we need to do anything about climate change – especially in the U.S.” He sees wind power as a solution to a bigger ecological issue, and that wider framework of understanding is often dismissed by protestors. To be sure, every kind of energy production has some negative impacts. Wind energy is one of the better solutions. (Although solar has not ignited local controversy.)

He spoke briefly about best practises and pointed me to the Canadian Wind Energy Association website that published a report on community relations (canwea.ca). In short, his recommendations for a good wind turbine development plan were as follows:

Find a suitable site for the turbine, a reasonable distance from people and sensitive habitats.
Communicate clearly and early with the community – explain the process and consequences to all parties while securing the permits.
Offer neighbour agreements – developers can offer nearby neighbouring landowners some compensation for the visual and sound impacts on their property. It makes them participants rather than observers.

Turbine dissenters: “Love your neighbour!”
I had an email exchange with one member of the anti-turbine groups. “Please don’t make us out to be the bad guys,” she said. She was not personally affected by turbines but has been convinced by the literature from these groups – and from testimony from people adversely affected by them – that these “three-armed bandits” raise serious health concerns. Not only that, their new transmission lines are “totally ugly,” bringing dirty electricity, stray voltage and noise pollution into their communities.

She quotes a health study that claims 15-20 percent of residents are negatively affected by the turbines. “Even one person would be too many,” she adds. She reports that people can’t sleep, their children can’t concentrate on homework and too many birds, bats and turtles are suffering and dying from turbine development.

Her activism includes participating in rallies, demonstrations and public meetings, as well as writing in the paper and appearing in TV interviews. She has petitioned and visited representatives of the regional, provincial and federal government. She has written letters, made phone calls and pleaded with leaseholders. “Nothing has worked well,” she adds, although her municipality has since declared itself a “non-willing host.”

She is critical of municipalities, leaseholders and churches. Municipalities have accepted “bribe funds” to go easy on the developers, she reports, and their hands are tied by the Green Energy Act. In her opinion, farmers who host turbines “love money more than their community” as they ignore the plight of their hurting neighbours. Many have signed confidentiality documents that prevent them from saying anything negative about the turbines. Finally, churches have ignored her letters, and while a few have showed some interest in learning more about the issues, one pastor said quite bluntly, “This is not a church issue. Leave it alone.”

This activist sees such church passivity as the worst travesty. “The world is watching,” she warns, “and our actions speak louder than our words.” A deep, underlying fear is growing in her community; people are afraid for their families and their futures. Her hope is that leaseholders will say they are sorry and that they will help raise funds to increase public awareness. “And wave to me when we pass on the road,” she pleads. “Don’t treat me as though I’m invisible.”

Her ultimate quarrel is with the provincial government, and at heart, she views her activism as an act of concern for her neighbours and other creatures. “We need to fight the government to make the projects safe and keep the proponents compliant,” she explains. “We need to keep the developers honest.”

Churches who host all sides of the issue
One pastor told me that when people put up a wind turbine without consulting their neighbours, relations quickly deteriorate. “Trust is broken, a divide opens up, and people stop talking to each other – even people in the same congregation.” It can even cause a rift in a marriage, he added. “One husband did not even tell his wife about the details, and she felt powerless as animosity grew with neighbours.” Anger, anxiety, frustration, betrayal – parties on both sides feel wronged by their neighbours.

Another pastor from another region said their community is surrounded by wind turbines. “It’s aesthetically displeasing, they cause noise pollution and the birds get hit by the blades. The stray voltage affects the cattle. We’ve had some long council meetings and numerous meetings with individuals. And the public hearings don’t make a difference. It is not the unmitigated blessing we were promised it would be.”

Some church members were shunning each other within one congregation, and the situation worsened to the point where the pastor brought in Shalem counselling services to lead a restorative practise circle. Some progress was made as members offered careful apologies to each other and some agreements were made about restoring civil relations. But the hurt continues to run deep, as some people report health problems, sleep interruptions and some have even sold their homes and moved to escape the whooshing turbines.

“Both sides didn’t handle it well,” said the pastor. They did not follow the process for disputes laid out in Matthew 18. “They just did not hear each other,” he added. “The government is also to blame. There is lots of politics involved. Hydro bills have gone up, contracts are binding. My best advice to congregations and councils? Don’t take sides. Just don’t take sides in this issue.” Another pastor suggested that wind turbines just cause trouble for a community, and provincial energy issues did not need special consideration. “You can keep the developers out of your community if you band together and resist. We did it. There are no wind turbines in our area.”

Some farmers say that stray voltage from the turbines affects cattle.

Faith that makes amends
Wind turbines, along with other renewable energy sources, promised to be the solution to our insatiable hunger for electricity and the strain old power production methods were putting on the creation. Those in the red regions (Liberal-voting Ontario cities) have initiated an energy policy that disrupts life in blue regions (Conservative-voting rural Ontario). Environmental ethics, political loyalties and social geography collide.

Some land owners are pleasantly surprised at how a relatively small section of their property suddenly becomes a source of cash flow and a symbol of a greener future. Many of them barely notice the noise of the blades, which – when set back at the required 550 metres from homes – is comparable to the sound of a refrigerator humming and far below the sound of traffic. Other community members either resent this change, or are genuinely hurt by the process and the unforeseen consequences of these massive towers on human health and the environment.

If at the heart of the Christian church lives a God with his arms outstretched in forgiveness, reaching wide for help and healing, there should be some way beyond the money, beyond the pain, that leads towards a restored community. Wind is not just a source of electrical power, but the Biblical symbol of a mysterious spiritual movement that can change both hearts and homes.

Forgiveness, however, is not only words; it requires personal change and remedial action. Said one anti-turbine activist: “Will they extend a hand of Christian mercy to their hurting neighbour? Will they lobby the government to change its policies? Christianity should speak louder than the confidentially agreement.” Everyone would be blessed if turbines were located where they bothered none of God’s creatures, great or small.

The advice leaseholders would give to those thinking of signing a wind turbine contract: think and pray long and hard. Discuss your plans with your neighbours and do your research. Work some percentage of profits in for the municipality – so everyone benefits.

The experience has changed them. “I was a lot more judgmental before,” said the husband. “People can be too harsh with each other. We can live with a deeper sense of grace.”

Then they added: “this interview has been one of the few times that we can talk freely about this.”

These leaseholders become nervous now when strangers come to the door. Will it be one of those aggressive protestors? One day a member from a local church known to have turbine opponents appeared at their door. They opened it, and he said quite frankly, “I hear you are getting wind turbines.”

Their hearts sank, anticipating another verbal blast. Instead, his next words were: “I’m in favour of them, and you have my support.”

The gentleman has been a voice of reason in the community, a father-figure and model to help the community find its civility again. That kind of courage can mend many fractured relationships, as governments, companies and citizens continue to explore creative solutions to the crisis at the crosswinds of energy production and environmental stewardship.

  • 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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