R esidents of Prince Edward County, Ontario, are opposing the push of several large wind power developers eager to begin building in the area. Situated south of Belleville between the Bay of Quinte and Lake Ontario, the region is a peninsula. The high and relatively consistent airflow makes it attractive to wind-powered energy developers. However, business and citizen groups in the county argue that wind power developments pose a threat to human health and safety, wildlife, and the economic prosperity in the region.
Orville Walsh, a representative of the County Coalition for Safe and Appropriate Green Energy (CCSAGE), explained some of the health effects of living near wind farms. “On a global basis, you’ll find people that are living close to [turbines] are having a lot of troubles with either noise or low-frequency vibrations – and by close I mean less than two kilometres,” Walsh said.
Commonly reported side effects of living near turbines include “sleep disturbance, fatigue, nausea, headaches, dizziness, and tinnitus,” or a ringing in the ear, according to Neal Michelutti, an environmental scientist at Queen’s University.
Michelutti has undertaken research to discover whether a new wind farm on Wolfe Island in Lake Ontario will lead to adverse health effects on the island’s residents. Research began before the installations were built, giving the Queen’s team an opportunity to study people’s health over time, before and after the wind farm.
“A lot of the [scientific] literature that’s out there is not really scientifically sound,” said Michelutti, whose group consulted epidemiologists at the University to ensure an appropriate research design. The researchers are using two separate questionnaires to monitor general health and also specific symptoms associated with wind turbines elsewhere.
The non-profit group Lake Ontario Waterkeeper, co-founded by Krystyn Tully, first became involved with wind developments because of environmental concerns regarding 12 turbines on Wolfe Island. “For every turbine that is built a road also has to be built. In the case of Wolfe Island, you’re talking about roads being built, through wetlands and sensitive marshlands”, explained Tully.
In Prince Edward County, the problem is scale. “If every project that is proposed for [the county] were to go through, it would be 285 turbines, including 142 offshore,” said Tully. “It’s the cumulative effect of all those put together that nobody has looked at.” She insisted that no less than an individual environmental assessment will be adequate.
Groups like CCSAGE and others across Canada are not opposed to wind power, but simply aim to have wind farms constructed in a way they deem responsible. A central issue for such groups is setbacks, the regulated distance of a turbine or group of turbines from “receptors,” like homes, schools, or businesses.
“Regardless of the merits of wind energy, just don’t put them close to people,” said Walsh.
In Canada, each province establishes its own setback regulations. Currently, Ontario’s Ministry of Environment is proposing setbacks of 550 metres for individual turbines and up to 1,500 metres for groups of turbines, depending on noise levels. This regulation, however, would still fall short of the two-kilometre range that groups like CCSAGE are seeking.
Despite opposition and a weakened global economy, wind energy grew at a rate of up to 40 per cent in Canada and 31 per cent globally in 2009, according to the Canadian Wind Energy Association (CanWEA).
Part of this growth is linked to new legislation, like Ontario’s Green Energy Act, implemented in May 2009. The act’s feed-in tariff program guarantees premium prices for electricity produced by industrial wind projects. CanWEA is currently petitioning the federal government to extend its ecoEnergy Renewable Power Program, which fed $1.48 billion into renewable energy projects from 2007 to 2009.
Many groups, however, remain unconvinced of the benefits of large-scale wind power, which has been marketed as leading to a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, reduced pollution, and new jobs and stimulus for the green economy.
“It’s politically appealing to the governments in power that generally people living in urban areas are not threatened by [wind farms] and so it’s basically being foisted on the rural populations,” said Walsh. “[Politicians] talk about green economy and employment, but even that looks suspect when you look at the experience in Europe where rising energy costs basically have created a net loss of jobs.”