Advances in technology combined with environmental advocacy have presented Canadians with an array of solutions in pursuit of clean, renewable energy sources. Efforts to harness the power of sun, wind, and waves are well-intentioned, although each energy production option must be weighed in terms of its true costs and benefits. Electricity derived from the kinetic energy of wind using turbines provides one such alternative with considerable potential.
On May 14 2009, the Ontario Green Energy Act (GEA) became law, with facilitation of wind energy as a centrepiece. The interaction of this legislation with communities, industry, and political interests has precipitated heated debate.
The Empire Club of Canada hosted two keynote speakers in separate events this year. On April 8, Ms. Adarsh Mehta, Chair of the Canadian Wind Energy Association (CanWEA) delivered a speech titled “Wind Energy: Powering Canada’s Future.” An energetic rebuttal was delivered on June 2, by Mr. John Laforet, President of Wind Concerns Ontario. His speech, titled “Wind Generated Controversy: Ontario’s Green Energy Act,” challenged many of the notions advanced by CanWEA, the industry, and the GEA.
Ms. Mehta’s mandate is to help formulate and guide wind energy growth in Canada. CanWEA represents the interests of over 460 members, including wind energy turbine manufacturers, service providers, component suppliers, contractors, and developers.
Today, wind energy services about 2% of Canada’s electricity demand. CanWEA’s goal is to grow this contribution to 20% by 2025. This, Mehta contends, will translate to $100 billion in total private sector investment, half of which will remain in Canada, will create 50,000 jobs, generate $125 million in lease payments to landowners, and $125 million in annual tax and community benefit revenues.
Governments need to provide stable, sustained, long-term policies to support wind energy deployment, argued Mehta, to enable Canada to attract global investment.
Three key benefits of wind energy were outlined: more clean energy production, increased green employment opportunities, and economic benefits to communities through lease payments and tax revenues.
John Laforet became involved in a grass roots movement that challenged the GEA from human health, environmental, financial, legal, and political perspectives. Learning that Ontario Hydro had planned to install 60 to 100 wind turbines 2 to 4 kilometres off the Scarborough Bluffs, Laforet joined a local residents’ group called “Save the Scarborough Bluffs,” opposing the plan. Subsequently, Wind Concerns Ontario was formed.
“The Government of Ontario has yet to do any form of legitimate scientific assessment into the negative impacts of industrial wind development on human health or the environment,” stated Laforet. “When industrial turbines have been installed in a community, some people always get sick.”
At least 135 Ontarians have reported a variety of illnesses thought to be linked to nearby wind turbines. Symptoms include sleeplessness, migraine headaches, and ringing in the ears.
Laforet asserted that the GEA seeks to remove local democratic control from the planning process. Once a project has received Ontario government approval, he argued, the municipality is powerless to act. As such, roughly 80 municipal councils representing 2 million Ontarians have allied themselves with Wind Concerns Ontario.
Laforet cited examples of ecological damage that follow installation of turbines. Evidence included clear cutting and blasting at the Norwester Escarpment and in Dorion near Thunder Bay, the plight of the endangered Blanding’s Turtle at Ostrander Point in Prince Edward County, and troublesome bird and bat mortality at Wolfe Island.
Ontario’s feed-in tariff program (FIT), developed with the GEA to offer stable prices under long term contracts for green energy, requires the province to purchase electricity from industrial wind developers when generated. “Electricity must be purchased regardless of demand,” said Laforet, “at rates that are often 300% higher than those available on the open market.” He attributes much of the recent increases in electricity prices to the GEA, even in the face of decreasing demand.
Pointing to a report from the CD Howe Institute that estimates the rate of subsidy for each “green” job to be $179,000, Laforet challenged claims to economic benefits. His position is that wind energy fails to enhance local economies as emigration of households and businesses erodes property values and the tax base.
True social, ecological and economic costs and benefits remain unclear. Objective third-party analysis is required to move beyond rhetoric, and to determine whether the solution justifies the cost.