BY GARY MAY
In the rush to replace “dirty energy,” some say the Ontario government has caught turbine fever, turning a blind eye to the negative impact that offshore wind-driven energy production can have on the very environment it says it wants to protect.
Is Premier Dalton McGuinty so hell-bent on developing a green energy industry that he’s willing to sacrifice the environment in the name of economic benefit?
In other words, is Ontario too keen to be green? And what will it mean for the province’s waterfront communities?
Private enterprise has already erected hundreds of industrial-sized wind turbines in farm fields across the province. The public is divided between those who say the 40- to 60-metre-tall towers, with their 30- to 40-metre blades, are graceful harbingers of a more environmentally sensitive era, and those who find them blights on the landscape, threats to wildlife and human health, and costly and inefficient electricity generators.
50-metre long blades
Now, the fight is moving from solid ground to lakes Ontario and Erie, where opponents in waterfront communities are gearing up to battle proposals to erect even bigger turbines of up to 80 metres tall, with blades approaching 50 metres long.
Wind turbines in the lake won’t come cheap: It is estimated that to build one would cost three times as much as its terrestrial cousin. That’s a cost that would be passed on to consumers of electrical power. But beyond the financial cost, environmentalists are reeling at what they say would be the ecological costs, arguing that many turbines would be placed directly in the path of migrating birds.
As well, they say, evidence suggests the toll on insect-devouring bats could be even heavier. Add to that the argument that erecting the towers could stir up lake bottom sediment that’s laced with toxins, and the unknown effect they’d have on fish.
And, finally, there is the issue of esthetics, with thousands coming out to meetings across the province to complain the towers, with their ever-turning blades, bedecked with bright warning lights, would ruin the view in many of our most valued waterfront communities. The impact on tourism, they say, could be catastrophic.
What is an environment-conscious citizen to think?
More study needed before turbines go in the lakes
Gail Krantzberg, who has worked with the Ontario government to clean up toxic waterfront hot spots such as Collingwood Harbour, is blunt in her assessment of the offshore wind turbine farm proposed for the western basin of Lake Erie.
“Putting turbines off the shore of Point Pelee in Lake Erie is a terrible idea,” the McMaster University professor tells MyNewWaterfrontHome.com. “With the migratory bird route there, it’s an outrageous proposal to place them offshore.”
There are, however, places in the lakes where it could make sense to construct turbines, Krantzberg adds. But before that happens, she says more research needs to be done about the impact on fish habitat and bats.
Lately, the news media across Ontario have been filled with a confusing array of reports on the status of the offshore wind turbine proposals.
One of those proposals, the Windstream Wolfe Island Shoals Inc. plan for 60 or so turbines at the east end of Lake Ontario off Wolfe Island near Kingston, was approved by the Ontario Power Authority under its FIT (Feed-In Tariff) program for renewable energy projects.
At the western end of Lake Erie in Pigeon Bay, the power authority refused to approve SouthPoint Wind’s Phase One, which calls for 15 turbines northwest of Point Pelee National Park. Phase Two calls for 700 more turbines in lakes Erie and St. Clair.
In fact, Windstream is a long way off from getting approval from the array of government ministries it still requires, and SouthPoint is far from dead.
Toronto Hydro has its own plan for lake turbines
There are other offshore wind power projects proposed for the two big lakes, too. Toronto-based Trillium Power Wind Corporation is eyeing several Lake Ontario sites; Calgary-based Canadian Hydro Developers Inc. wants to install 880 turbines in Lake Erie between Long Point and Port Stanley; and Toronto Hydro is exploring its own project for both lakes.
John Laforet is president of the provincewide Wind Concerns Ontario
organization, a coalition of 42 groups promoting awareness of wind farm issues. “The Windstream approval came without any warning,” Laforet says. “We hadn’t heard much of anything about it. It just demonstrates what a secret process the whole thing is.”
As for SouthPoint, Kristin Jenkins, director of media relations for the Ontario Power Authority, tells MyNewWaterfrontHome.com that the decision not to OK a hookup to the provincial grid is a matter of there being insufficient transmission and distribution capacity west of London. New capacity is being built and the project can be reassessed in about six months.
With four Ontario ministries and at least three federal departments sharing an interest in various issues related to offshore wind turbines, no one could blame proponents for shaking their heads at the prospect of obtaining approvals. That’s why Ontario’s Ministry of Energy and Infrastructure established the Renewable Energy Facilitation Office, to help guide them through the maze of offices, regulations and requirements.
Minister promises 'clarification' soon on the rules
But Ontario’s Ministry of the Environment hasn’t even created a permit application process, nor has it developed the guidelines for granting permits. Linda Jeffrey, the Ontario minister of Natural Resources, says there will “soon” be clarification of the approval process, and acknowledges there is “some confusion” under the current regime.
Meanwhile, proposals continue to come forth, and four Ontario ministries are “working together to provide greater certainty and clarity around the rules and requirements for offshore wind development proposals,” says Jolanta Kowalski, senior media relations officer for the Ministry of Natural Resources.
One of the most contentious issues Ontario will need to deal with is how far offshore the turbines would have to be erected. While Windstream president Ian Baines has said his towers would be more than five kilometres away from shore, SouthPoint officials have mused about coming a kilometre or so from the shoreline, a prospect that horrifies birders and those who use and enjoy Erie’s beautiful waterfront.
In Michigan, where several offshore projects are envisioned for the Great Lakes, a study recommends turbines be placed no closer than 10 kilometres from shore, 21 kilometres from any national park, eight kilometres from endangered species and 1.6 kilometres from fish spawning areas.
Offshore wind projects tested in Europe
Others argue no distance from shore is acceptable because the turbines themselves become potential polluters of the lake water. A malfunction could send the 4,600 litres of lubricant oil each turbine would contain right into the lake.
As the process unfolds, Laforet sees a tug-of-war developing between lawyers and politicians. He believes Ontario’s Liberal government is trying to ram through wind projects, even in the face of laws that would seem to come in to play to protect human health and wellbeing. He notes that offshore wind has only been tested in the oceans far off the European coast — and never in fresh water.
The relatively shallow Lake Erie, for example, frequently freezes over in the areas under consideration. Would shifting lake ice threaten the turbines?
“Offshore turbines offer a different set of problems,” Laforet tells MyNewWaterfrontHome.com. “We don’t know the risk in fresh water because it’s never been done. What about ice? What about impact on drinking water intakes? We don’t know the risk of building closer to shore.”
MPP says opposition is growing within government circles
Bruce Crozier, Liberal MPP for Essex, which borders lakes Erie and St. Clair, opposes offshore wind power and says he believes opposition to the idea is growing within the McGuinty government as more facts come to light. “The government has significant concern about some environmental issues,” he says.
Environmentalists are lining up on both sides of the issue. Daniel Cherrin, a Michigan lawyer who until recently represented SouthPoint Wind, told Detroit’s Metro Times
newspaper: “There are the environmentalists that seek to preserve the pristine beauty of the natural surroundings of the Great Lakes, versus the environmentalist that is all about sustainability and finding new ways to generate clean, green energy.”
Meanwhile, the Essex Region Conservation Authority has decided to spend $250,000 to study the environmental impact that offshore turbines would have in Lake Erie’s Pigeon Bay. The study, conducted alongside SouthPoint Wind’s own studies as required by Ontario’s Green Energy Act, could prove to be a defining moment in the story of offshore turbines.
At an April 22 public meeting in Kingsville, one of the opponents of the turbines insisted the battle isn’t a case of NIMBYism (Not In My Back Yard). “We’re trying to produce evidence that’s not just about our backyard,” said retired University of Windsor professor Colin Ball. “We’re trying to produce evidence that’s conclusive. At the end of the day, we want to know the truth.”
One thing is certain, this story is far from over.