This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on August 17, 2009
Ontario's Gamble on Wind Energy
You are forgiven if you somehow missed the celebrations, but in late June, George Smitherman, Ontario's minister of ENERGY and infrastructure, was named the 2009 winner of the World WIND ENERGY Award. The handsome plaque, handed out at the eighth World Wind Energy conference on Jeju Island in South Korea, hasn't yet been installed on his office wall, but the 45-year-old is busy making a bid to extend his reign as "Mr. Wind" (as he calls it) into 2010. Or perhaps, given the scale of pending government announcements, lock up the title for the rest of the century.
Ontario is already North America's friendliest jurisdiction for wind and other renewable energy projects, thanks to its recently proclaimed Green Energy Act, meant to speed along approval, and the establishment of European-style 20-year fixed-price energy contracts. (Power companies are now required to integrate all new green energy projects into their grids and pay producers 13.5 cents per kilowatt hour for onshore wind farms, 19 cents/kWh for offshore wind, and up to 80.2 cents/kWh for solar power, versus about six cents/kWh for both hydro and NUCLEAR ENERGY.) The province, which is committed to shutting down its coal-fired plants by 2014, will have 1,200 megawatts of wind power in operation by the end of this year, and there are 103 more "shovel ready" wind developments, totalling 3,263 MW, in the pipeline. The proliferation of giant turbines - 80-m-tall towers with 40- to 45-m blades - is already nearing the 5,000 MW supply ceiling the Ontario Power Authority has said it can easily integrate into its aging grid. But soon, there will be no more limits. Smitherman is promising a series of major power infrastructure announcements in coming weeks that will not only make wind a much bigger part of Ontario's energy mix, but open up vast new areas of the province to commercial wind development.
"The month of August is going to be a very, very busy month," he told Maclean's. "It hasn't been summertime as usual. People in the electrical sector are working their butts off." New north-south transmission lines that will allow power generated in the "relatively less populated" parts of Ontario to be directed to its demand-heavy southern reaches are part of the plan, the minister allows. It's a move he expects will open up the wind-rich shores of Lake Superior and the northern reaches of Lake Huron to renewable energy development. "We're going to send a message that Ontario is serious, and open for business," he says. "We don't want to see any sort of cap on green energy."
Wind power may currently only make up one per cent of Canada's energy supply - 2,775 MW, or enough to power over 840,000 homes - but it's undeniably becoming a big global business. Denmark gets 22 per cent of its power from turbines, Spain, 13 per cent, Germany, almost nine per cent. President Barack Obama's campaign pledge to spend $150 billion over the next decade on renewable energy has set off a green frenzy south of the border - the American Wind Energy Association's Windpower 2009 conference in Chicago this past May attracted 23,000 delegates and close to 1,300 exhibitors - and the competition for investment and government subsidies is becoming cutthroat. (A $100-million investment in wind in the U.S. will soon qualify for an immediate $30-million federal tax rebate, a bonus that will be available to both domestic and foreign companies.)
In Canada, however, the green rush has recently encountered some significant turbulence. A federal subsidy of one cent per kWh generated - which in real terms means a two-MW turbine currently earns its owner about $61,000 a year from Ottawa - did not have its funding extended in the last budget, and will come to an end this fall. And all across the country, new wind farm developments are meeting with stiff resistance from local residents, concerned not just about the aesthetics of the giant turbines, but what opponents claim is a growing body of evidence of adverse health effects. Earlier this month, a packed community meeting in New Denmark, N.B., site of a proposed 60-MW development, heard horror stories from residents of a small town in Maine, who claim the noise and shadows from 28 turbines near their community have deeply disrupted their days and nights. (Dr. Nina Pierpont, a pediatrician from upstate New York, has a book and a website detailing a condition she calls wind turbine syndrome, a cluster of symptoms including headaches, nausea, dizziness, and sleeplessness.) Five community consultations across Ontario in June were dominated by similar concerns. And an umbrella protest group, Wind Concerns Ontario (WCO), now counts 32 citizens' organizations from 21 different parts of the province, rallying not just around health issues, but concerns about wildlife, effects on local micro-climates, and associated transmission lines, towers, and substations that it claims are "tearing apart the fabric of rural Ontario."
Dr. Robert McMurtry, a former dean of medicine at the University of Western Ontario, who has become the unofficial spokesman for the group, says he started to become concerned about wind power when he was thinking of installing a turbine on his 40-acre vacation property in rural Prince Edward County (site of a half-dozen proposed wind farms, and a hotbed of protest.) "When I first read about the side effects I thought that they didn't sound very convincing," he says. "But then I did my homework, and I became alarmed." Sleep deprivation appears to be the biggest issue. "A percentage of people get annoyed by noises over 40 decibels," says the physician. "They have trouble sleeping and with that comes stress and psychological distress." Last year, WCO and McMurtry invited Ontarians living near wind farms to fill out a survey about their health. A total of 107 people responded, with 84 adults and five children living near five different developments claiming adverse effects. Based on similar surveys conducted in Europe, McMurtry estimates that 25 per cent of people living within 2.5 km of turbines experience disruptions in their daily lives. Enough anecdotal evidence, he thinks, to justify a serious epidemiological look at the industry. "You can assume that all these people are liars," says McMurtry. "But many of these folks will tell you that they welcome wind turbines. They just want someone to turn them off at night, or move them further back."
In June, the Ontario government moved to do just that, issuing what it claims are North America's most stringent standards governing wind farms. Under the proposed rules, turbines will now have to be set back a minimum of 550 m from the nearest dwelling, with the distance increasing in accordance with the number of machines and the noise they produce. Turbines that collectively create a 106-decibel racket (at their base) will have to be 950 m from houses, and farms with more than 26 turbines will have to be have a 1.5-km setback. The government has also established a minimum 120-m buffer from shorelines and "natural heritage features," and dictated that turbines must be at least their height, plus their blade length, away from all roads and property lines.
It's a move that has infuriated what might be described as "big wind." In a recent letter to Smitherman and John Gerretsen, the Ontario minister of the ENVIRONMENT, the Canadian Wind Energy Association (CanWEA) warns that the province risks undermining much of its green progress. Of the 103 "shovel ready" wind projects in the province, 96 - and fully 48 per cent of all proposed turbines - will be affected by the new rules. And 79 of the projects, representing 2,591 MW, will be "rendered immediately non-viable" or require a "back to the drawing board redesign," warns the industry body. "If you are going to establish a setback based on sound, it should be based on sound, not an arbitrary distance," says Sean Whittaker, vice-president of policy for CanWEA. "Ontario's already had some of the strictest guidelines in the world." And while Whittaker is careful not to question the motivations of wind opponents - "If somebody has a concern you have to take it seriously" - he does note the lack of "peer reviewed" science to back up the health complaints. "There are more than 68,000 wind turbines in operation around the world, some of them have been in place for over 20 years. And complaints about them are few and far between," says Whittaker.
Smitherman, whose temperament earned him the nickname "Furious George," betrays hints that his patience is perhaps waning for both the backlash and industry whining. "I totally understand that there aren't many people out there looking for more electricity infrastructure in their backyards," he says. And if somebody has to go back to the drawing board and redesign some projects, "I apologize that it will be inconvenient in some circumstances. But bigger setbacks are part of the Green Act." All part of a difficult balancing act that the province must execute if it is to do away with coal by 2014, cut 30 megatonnes of CO2 emissions annually, and generally improve the health of all Ontarians. (Every year, the province's coal plants kill 668 people, while causing 1,100 emergency room visits and more than 300,000 minor illnesses, says the Ontario Medical Association.)
But the noisy debate - and the pending infrastructure announcements - might just be the kind of sideshow the Ontario government needs to distract attention from even bigger problems with its energy system. Seventy-five per cent of its existing generation system must be replaced over the next two decades, and the cost of refurbishing and expanding its aging nuclear plants - the source of 53 per cent of the province's power - is spiralling. Plans for two new reactors at Darlington were put on hold last month after the lowest bid came in at $26 billion, more than the power expansion budget for the next 20 years.
Bryne Purchase, a former deputy minister of finance and energy in Ontario, now executive director of the Queen's University Institute for Energy and Environmental Policy, says Dalton McGuinty's government seems to be flying by the seat of its pants when it comes to energy. "This has all been driven by relatively simple political thinking: coal bad, wind good," he says. A carbon tax, whatever the form, would have had the advantage of pricing the pollutants out of the market, rather than making wind the default winning technology - a problem, given that it is neither particularly cost-effective at the moment, nor efficient. (The amount of available wind power can change from minute to minute, depending on the breezes, which explains Ontario's decision to install "backup" natural gas-fired plants, which can be quickly pressed into service.) And as the cost of new transmission lines, grid hookups and the government-mandated preferential tariffs get buried on electricity bills, consumers will never know if wind was the way to go or not, says Purchase. "Soon it will be impossible to know what the truly cost-efficient alternatives actually were." Green, but at a steep price.
Maclean's August 17, 2009