BY GARY MAY
Responding to strong public concern about the impact offshore wind turbines could have on the Great Lakes, Ontario’s government has announced plans to establish a five-kilometre buffer along shorelines and require proponents to study their impact on wildlife, including fish populations.
Members of the public and the turbine industry are invited to have their say over the next few months, before regulations governing the industry are finalized.
While the five-kilometre setback is comparable to one proposed by several U.S. states, it wasn’t enough to satisfy John Laforet, president of Wind Concerns Ontario, a coalition of organizations across the province that has expressed opposition to the turbines.
Laforet calls the setback “totally inadequate” and says the province “is hoping community opposition will die down, because they’ve thrown us a very small bone.” He said he will continue to lead opposition to wind projects.
But Caroline Schultz, executive director of Ontario Nature, says: “This is an encouraging step toward ensuring that offshore wind energy developments avoid impacts on wildlife, particularly birds.” Ontario Nature is a non-profit organization established to protect and conserve natural areas.
And in the western reaches of Lake Erie, where one proponent intends to erect hundreds of turbines in an area renowned among birders, a conservation authority manager says the announcement gives some breathing space before any final decision is made on whether to proceed with its own study of the impact the turbines would have.
Provincial government reacting to public outcry
Richard Wyma of the Essex Region Conservation Authority (ERCA) told MyNewWaterfrontHome.com he hopes the province might take the lead in such a study so that finally, “we’ll be assured the proper science is done.”
“We’re not anti-turbine,” Wyma said of the conservation authority. “We just want to ensure sound, accurate, credible decisions are made.”
He said ERCA would be pleased to participate in a study if the province wants to proceed with a broader one that would be of use to a wider geographical area.
All across the province, groups have been established along Ontario’s waterfronts to express their concerns that the provincial government is failing to acknowledge the vast differences that exist between the issues related to land-based and water-based wind turbines.
With the announcement that the government of Dalton McGuinty is seeking input before it finalizes rules for offshore turbines, that would seem to suggest the message has been received.
Those special circumstances include everything from effects on fish habitat, migratory birds and bats, to erosion, pollution of lakes from which most Ontarians obtain their drinking water, and the impact on tourism and property values.
Seven out of every 10 Ontarians receive their drinking water from the Great Lakes, most from lakes Erie and Ontario, in which the majority of turbines have been proposed.
While land-based turbines are usually erected on private land and landowners are compensated, the lakes are Crown property. Therefore as part of the review process, the Natural Resources Ministry, which controls Crown lands, will take a look at how it should make those lands available for wind projects. This process, the government says, could result in certain additional areas beyond the five-kilometre setback being removed from development.
With its five-kilometre setback, the province is saying that it would measure five kilometres out from any shoreline — or island — before a wind turbine could be erected. In the proposal made for the western end of Lake Erie, there had been suggestions turbines could be erected as close as one kilometre to 1.5 kilometres from the shore of Point Pelee, on which Pelee National Park is located.
The existence of a national park, with sensitive marshlands, a tip that is already sensitive to erosion and is home to plant, animal and bird species known nowhere else in Canada, means the turbine proponents will also be under the watchful eye of Parks Canada and the federal Environment and Fisheries departments. Under the province’s five-kilometre barrier, only transmission lines linking the electricity-generating turbines would be allowed to cross the zone to the shoreline.
The provincial government announcement addressed several topics raised by those concerned about offshore turbines. Among those topics are:
These biologically diverse near-shore areas serve important roles in the production of sport fish species and contain important habitat for fish, mammals and birds. They’re often also subject to erosion.
Certain areas could be excluded even beyond the five-kilometre zone if erecting turbines could impede the safe transmission of shipping.
Applications could be subject to federal regulations and require federal approval under the Fisheries Act and the Navigable Waters Protection Act. This in turn could trigger federal environmental assessments.
Natural heritage assessment:
Turbine proponents will be required to prepare a plan that considers significant coastal wetlands, wildlife habitat and protected areas, with specific emphasis on fish populations and fisheries.
Proponents will also have to extrapolate what might happen as a result of ice buildup on the lake, the hazards it could pose to offshore structures and transmission systems, and how they can mitigate the impact of such hazards.
Applicants of offshore turbines would have to apply for the use of Crown land and prepare assessments that look at the impact on wildlife and water.
Public comments invited on proposed offshore turbine regulations
Any citizens or members of the turbine industry wishing to comment on the government’s plan must present those comments in writing, or electronically, using the form available at the Ministry of the Environment website. Consultation sessions will be held in the fall, with dates and locations listed at the ministry website.
Wind turbines are seen as part of the answer to Ontario’s search for more sources of renewable energy. Since 2003, about 1,300 megawatts of renewable electricity have come online in Ontario. That’s sufficient to power more than 300,000 homes, or an entire city the size of Windsor.
Proponents of offshore wind farms argue that offshore wind is of a higher velocity and more dependable than land-based wind.
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.
Five sets of proposals have been made for constructing wind turbines in the lakes, all the way from near Wolfe Island in the eastern reaches of Lake Ontario, to Lake St. Clair and western Lake Erie.
Some proponents have even installed devices this summer to measure wind speeds as part of their proposals. One of them is Toronto Hydro, which is looking at erecting 60 turbines in Lake Ontario on a reef, two kilometres to four kilometres offshore between Toronto and Ajax. The provincial government’s new buffer zone would deny such a plan.
Proponents say if they are required to move farther offshore into deeper water, it will increase costs — perhaps prohibitively.
MyNewWaterfrontHome.com — July 2010