Earlier this year, Ontario adopted a sweeping green energy plan that could make it a world leader in phasing out polluting sources of electricity. The plan paves the way for what supporters hope will be a massive expansion of solar, geothermal and wind power. But the province’s headlong rush toward renewables is roiling some rural communities, which fear massive wind farms will harm their economies and possibly their health. Anita Elash reports. (Photo: flickr.com/photos/canadagood)
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MARCO WERMAN: EU leaders would also like to see stronger emission cuts from Canada. Earlier this year the province of Ontario adopted a sweeping green energy plan that could make it a world leader in phasing out polluting sources of electricity. The plan paves the way for what supporters hope will be a massive expansion solar, geothermal, and wind power. But Ontario’s rush toward renewables is roiling some rural communities. As Anita Elash reports the communities fear massive wind farms will harm their economies and possibly their health.
ANITA ELASH: Downtown Picton, Ontario is the heart of bustling tourist district on Lake Ontario 135 miles east of Toronto. Visitors are drawn to a new wine industry, the town’s old brick storefronts, and thriving waterfront artist’s community. Dan Taylor is in charge of local economic development.
DAN TAYLOR: People are coming here to get away from it all. They’re not coming here for industrial experiences. They’re coming here for country experiences. And I guess we’re suggesting that there’s a bit of a conflict.
ELASH: The conflict Taylor is referring to is between the rustic flavor of Picton and scores of giant windmills planned for the area. Nearly 200 turbines are proposed for surrounding Prince Edward County and another 140 just offshore.
TAYLOR: I mean imagine if we were looking over these buildings right now and you saw a large wind turbines overlooking that. I mean that’s not what we’re all about.
ELASH: It’s a conflict that’s playing out across Ontario. The province’s new green energy plan is the most ambitious in North America. Its goal is to wean Ontario off dirty coal-fired power plants in just five years through a combination of energy efficiency and new solar biomass and wind power installations. That would be good for the environment but critics say the province is pushing a plan that will result in thousands of turbines without evaluating their impact on local communities and residents.
JOH LAFORET: A big concern is with how it’s being rolled out.
ELASH: John Laforet is president of Wind Concerns Ontario, a group organized to fight what it calls industrial wind power. Laforet says the government plan is going too far, too fast.
LAFORET: I think it’s going to lead us into a situation where families will be forced to leave their homes because turbines have been put in too close.
ELASH: The province has responded to these concerns by imposing some restrictions on where new turbines can go. For instance the structures must be at least 600 yards from the nearest building. Opponents argue that’s still too close but supporters say any farther would put too much land off limits. And they say when it comes to siting turbines there’s only so much leeway.
BEN CHIN: Windmills have to be built where there’s wind.
ELASH: That’s Ben Chin of the Ontario Power Authority.
CHIN: And windmills need transmission lines to be able to feed into the grid.
ELASH: The power authority has found that in Ontario some of the best mix of wind conditions and access to power lines is found in populated areas along the Great Lakes. Chin says that might mean putting turbines where some people would rather not have them. But that’s the price of helping tackle climate change.
CHIN: We’re not going to stand still as a society. And this province has made a conscious decision to get off of greenhouse gases. That comes with implications. That means that projects have to be built.
ELASH: But the concerns about the windmills go beyond esthetics.
GAIL KENNY: That’s noise. That’s pretty noisy.
ELASH: Gail Kenny lives on tiny Wolf Island in Lake Ontario site of one of the most hotly disputed wind projects. Eighty-six turbines have been built on the island and Kenny says the noise is relentless.
KENNY: When they are really thumping the atmosphere is full of them. So you feel it. Sometimes it even just affects your equilibrium a little bit because sound is vibration.
ELASH: Kenny is concerned the turbines could affect people’s health and Laforet of Wind Concerns Ontario says there’s good reason to worry. His group has collected about 100 reports from Ontarians who claim that nearby wind turbines are causing headaches, dizziness, sleep loss, ringing in the ears, and depression.
LAFORET: There’s a clear correlation between the audible sound that we can hear with our ear and negative health effects through sleep deprivation. That’s undeniable.
ELASH: Laforet’s group wants the province to stop allowing new turbines until it does detailed studies that prove those health problems aren’t connected to wind power. That’s a tall order since proof is often in the eye of the beholder. The Ontario government says it believes its 600 yard setback provides more than adequate health protection. But some independent researchers say the issue remains murky. Mary English is an environmental policy analyst at the University of Tennessee Knoxville who’s looked at the issue for the US National Academy of Sciences.
MARY ENGLISH: It’s a difficult question and one that’s not easily resolved particularly since the type of problem that’s being created is regarded by some people as trivial.
ELASH: Ontario has promised to appoint a watchdog to make sure that any new wind installations are safe. But whether or not the debate has ever settled English says Ontario faces a classic societal tradeoff in siting its new zero carbon energy facilities.
ENGLISH: Given where we are right now we have a choice that includes making some people arguably worse off in order to make a number of other people arguable better off.
ELASH: English says technological advances could some day allow wind farms to be built mostly out of the way of people. But until or unless that happens Ontario leap into the energy future likely will continue to generate protests along with clean power. For The World I’m Anita Elash in Toronto.
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