Thursday, March 15, 2012

Renewable Energy – Stop the Windmills?

During a drive up the 35/115 last week I noted the massive amount of red signs around the Pontypool area that protest the construction of wind turbines in the Kawartha region. Seeing red made me realize that these windmills are a great concern for some residents and made me curious as to what’s the big deal?

It’s no surprise that the renewable energy sector has expanded exponentially in the past decade as Ontario takes steps to achieve their “long term energy plan”.(See Ontario’s Long term Energy Plan: http://www.energy.gov.on.ca/docs/en/MEI_LTEP_en.pdf#page=4) The province is focusing efforts on developing solar, wind and water powered energy, seeking a more bountiful source of electricity. In fact, according to the Ontario Ministry of Energy, in the 1990’s renewable energy was crucial to meeting the consistently increasing demand for electricity while hydro capacity decreased. (See Long Time Energy Plan)

Solar powered energy systems have been popping up all over Ontario. People seem to embrace the idea of buying into renewable energy. In 2009 with the introduction of the Green Energy Act came the Ontario Feed-In Tariff Program (FIT) implemented by the Ontario Power Authority (OPA) (http://fit.powerauthority.on.ca) Until recent negotiations froze the rates paid out through the fit program, Ontario residents who applied and were approved for the FIT or microFIT (systems>10kW) programs, enjoyed a decent return on investment, at a guaranteed rate locked in for the next 20 years. Thus there was great incentive to getting involved with renewable energy.

It was around the introduction of the FIT program that the Kawartha region was deemed an ideal location for the construction of wind turbines. With its ample amounts of farmland there would be no problem finding a location that met the legal requirements. However, gaining support for the construction of the 2 scheduled wind turbines in the Pontypool area has been an uphill battle. Driving north from the 401 it was no mystery where the wind turbines are scheduled to be constructed. All of a sudden every other tree and fencepost was decorated with a red sign pleading "Stop the turbines".

A variety of groups have been organized to protest the construction of wind turbines in Ontario. According to one group, The Ontario Wind Resistance, windmills pose issues concerning health, safety, noise, wildlife and devaluation of surrounding houses, problems which do not arise with solar energy. (http://ontario-wind-resistance.org/). Issues range from the logical concerns regarding noise related health problems to the far less rational objections based on concern for the damage to the bird population. In fact, these issues have been refuted revealing that the noise caused by wind turbines is actually at a lower decibel than that of "background home or office" noise. It has also been said that a good Windex job is far more dangerous to birds than a wind turbine ever could be. (http://www.omafra.gov.on.ca/english/engineer/facts/03-047.htm)

In a formal response to these allegations, the Chief Medical Officer of Health in Ontario conducted a study to determine the reality of these adverse impacts on residents surrounding windmills. The study concluded that while residents living in proximity of windmills complained of headaches, nausea etc., there was not a direct link between the wind turbine noise and undesirable health effects, though it could reasonably be considered annoying. (http://www.health.gov.on.ca/en/public/publications/ministry_reports/wind_turbine/wind_turbine.pdf)

However, despite the results of these short term investigations, it is hard to ignore the testimonials of people experiencing health problems related to wind turbines. At local meetings to discuss the turbines people currently living near turbines (10+) complained of serious sleep deprivation some depression and anxiety and constant vibrations. This is perfect example of why locations of the turbines are limited. In Ontario the turbines must be located a minimum of only 550 metres from residences. (Compared to 1.5-2 km in most European countries)

Despite the technically unsupported allegations of health issues and numerous other obstacles, wind turbines offer great potential for Ontario. The energy source is infinite offering ability to harvest wind power 24 hours/day and higher harvests during peak times. (i.e. cold winter day leads to more power use and in turn the winter wind provides an increased level of power generated. (http://www.omafra.gov.on.ca/english/engineer/facts/03-047.htm#neighbourly) In fact, one wind turbine, over the course of a year, can potentially produce enough energy to power over 1000 households with renewable energy. In addition to its positive environmental impacts, the renewable energy sector has already created over 20 000 jobs across Ontario (mine included) and is expected to reach 50 000 by the end of 2012. (http://news.ontario.ca/mei/en/2011/07/green-energy-act-creates-20000-jobs.html)

Today Ontario operates with a mix of energy sources. Water based systems like Niagara Falls support 26% of Ontario’s energy but according to Statistics Canada, sources of renewable fresh water are declining.( http://www.statcan.gc.ca/daily-quotidien/100913/dq100913b-eng.htm) This is a prime opportunity to capitalize on the benefits of wind and solar as energy sources as their sources will not deplete.

While I do not consider renewable energy a substitute for coal and oil, there is something to be said for energy with infinite sources. It is important for people to look into the long term future when considering the inconveniences of implementing renewable energy. Our current dependency on non renewable sources is short sighted. By taking the steps now to create renewable energy sources, we can mitigate the shock of depleting fossil fuel levels.

Last October the OPA froze the FIT and microFIT programs in order to renegotiate the rates paid out and create a more financially sustainable program. The OPA also backdated this negotiation of the rates to August 21, 2011 causing thousands of applications to be put on hold. While the OPA has not yet released the new rates, it is widely expected that the province will follow suit with Germany and other European countries and drastically reduce the rates. Since 2004 Germany, the country the Ontario FIT system was modelled after, has cute the rates paid out for renewable energy by nearly 60%. Unfortunately, not many people decide to invest their savings in renewable energy because they want to “Go Green.” The renewable energy sector is a business, and if the rates decrease by 50%, the time for program members to recoup their initial investment and start really benefiting from their energy system doubles and the investment becomes far less desirable. With so much opposition from the community and the OPA keeping the FIT programs in limbo, it is hard to predict whether or not wind turbines will see the growth and benefits that solar has in the Kawartha region.

Cheri McLachlan

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