A mighty controversy: Are windfarm opponents getting their facts straight?

Pam Erickson's quest to derail a windfarm in Lake Ontario began with a phone call from a friend about a notice in the Toronto Star.

It announced Toronto Hydro's plan to install a zephir anemometer, a fridge-sized device that measures wind speed and direction using laser refraction, in Lake Ontario; it would collect data over two years and, if wind resources prove sufficient, might support an offshore windfarm of up to 60 turbines 2-4 km from shore stretching 25 km between the Leslie Spit and Ajax.

Erickson was "shocked," and her efforts to educate herself on wind energy did nothing to reassure her. "We began to panic," she says. "You didn't have to dig far to find information that wasn't hunky-dory." She and her neighbours organized Save the Bluffs, published a website and flyer, circulated a petition and brought out so many opponents to Toronto Hydro's first public meeting on October 27 that 200 people were left standing outside, and the meeting had to be rescheduled.

'Possible' hidden costs of wind turbines

Thousands of websites all over the world list "hidden" costs of wind turbines including slaughtered birds, health problems, incessant noise and even increased greenhouse gas emissions. Local residents base their opposition on these reports, republishing their claims in reports of their own, and in some cases generate so much opposition that proponents withdraw their projects before reaching the end of the environmental assessment process.

Save the Bluffs lists all of these as "possible effects" on its website and flyer, many taken verbatim from Keith Stelling's 2007 report "Calculating the Real Costs of Industrial Wind Power," written for the Friends of Arran Lake Wind Action Group. Although it contains research from an impressive array of credentialed experts, it has never been published. If Stelling and Save the Bluffs are right, wind energy is a perplexing hoax being perpetrated on a gullible public; if not, misinformation is costing us a valuable supply of clean energy.

Misrepresented research

Because wind is intermittent, fossil fuel-powered plants are needed to provide back-up power. Save the Bluffs damningly claims, "That adds pollution. Generators operating in this mode emit more CO2 than they would if working at full capacity."

If this were true, any reason to pursue wind energy would evaporate. But the argument is based on a chain of misrepresented research that began in 2004, when Ireland's Electricity Supply Board (ESB) reported on their experiences in "Impact of Wind Generation in Ireland on the Operation of Conventional Plant and the Economic Implications." They concluded that if 11.7 per cent of Ireland's electricity requirements were met by wind energy, CO2 emissions would go down by 1.42 million tonnes at a cost of 138 euros each, "high relative to the other alternatives."

David White, a chemical engineer with thirty years experience at Exxon and Esso, claimed to summarize this in an appendix to a 2004 report for the UK's Renewable Energy Foundation titled "Reduction in Carbon Dioxide Emissions." He picked up on the expense but ignored the reductions estimate, instead stating that "this frequent ramping and start-up pattern ... increases the CO2 emissions"-true, but only during stops and starts.

Stelling quoted at length from this section in his report and concluded that "as the level of wind capacity increases, the CO2 emissions actually increase," a conclusion completely unsupported by the initial research. Save the Bluffs then picked up the quote and trumpeted White as an expert energy consultant. That's how a projected 1.42 million tonne reduction in CO2 emissions from Ireland became an increase in Toronto.

Fair or fowl: Are wind farms for the birds?

This broken-telephone quality of information transmission extends to claims on bird mortality. In May 2007, Mike Daulton, Director of Conservation for the National Audobon Society, addressed Congress on the "Impacts of Wind Turbines on Birds and Bats." Daulton said that "wind energy facilities can have detrimental impacts on birds, bats and other wildlife" but that "to protect birds, wildlife and habitat from global warming, it is necessary to reduce pollution resulting from burning fossil fuels, particularly when generating electricity" and "on balance, Audobon strongly supports wind power."

He recommended guidelines for locating and operating wind turbines to minimize losses. But Stelling quoted only his statement on detrimental impacts. Save the Bluffs then incorrectly summarized this as "wind-farm developers claim that wind-turbines kill only a small amount of birds each year, [but] statistics compiled by the National Audobon Society say otherwise."

Wind turbines do kill birds. How many? Joyce MacLean, Director of Strategic Issues for Toronto Hydro Corporation, claims turbines kill on average about two birds each per year. Academic studies generally support this number, although depending on the site, it can vary from a fraction of one to approximately 30 per turbine per year in any given study. Other academics, such as Ryunosuke Kikuchi writing in the Journal for Nature Conservation, contest the methodologies but still find mortality rates of 1 to 68 birds, depending on the location, per turbine per year-a high number but not anywhere near as high as the 3,900 who flew into an office building at 200 Consillium Place in Toronto between 2000 and 2006, according to the Fatal Light Awareness Program (a registered charity dedicated to reducing bird mortality risks in urban areas). And, unlike office buildings, wind energy can save the lives of birds as well as people.

Keith Stewart, Manager of Climate Change for World Wildlife Fund Canada, discussed a WWF ranking of 23 technologies for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Wind energy came out "much more positive than negative," he said. "Certainly the impacts are much lower than the harm they avoid."

Health impacts

Turbine noise and human health? A search of PubMed (a database of medical journals) showed only two articles in peer-reviewed journals on this subject, both written by Eja Pederson and Kerstin Persson Waye of Goteborg University in Sweden. One, a study of 3,471 residents living on average 780 metres from a turbine, found "no adverse health effects other than annoyance could be directly attributed to wind turbine noise." Only 31 of the 754 survey respondents (4 per cent) reported even annoyance.

Wind turbines are not without impacts, and not every site is suitable. The windfarm at Altamont Pass in California is a notable example: built in the 1980s in a major bird migratory zone, its 4,500 turbines kill 4,700 birds each year, 1,300 of them raptors such as golden eagles. Although many organizations would prefer provincial siting guidelines to individual project assessments, any wind farm over 2MW in Ontario requires a provincial environmental screening and, depending on its location and funding sources, potentially a federal screening as well. "If a windfarm is proposed, we would be doing full and thorough studies," says MacLean.

While no one can be blamed for scepticism about proponent-funded research, cherry-picked statistics and misrepresentative facts from anti-wind energy groups lead to further confusion, not clarity. Erickson wants a public meeting in which local citizens can invite the experts of their choice, so "people could ask questions of somebody who doesn't have a conflict of interest." That's one way to establish trust.

Jane Story of the Ontario Sustainable Energy Association offers another: neighbours should share the costs and benefits by building their own renewable energy cooperatives. "If you want to deal with the problems of where they're located," she says, "own it!"

 

Andrea McDowell was a professional treehugger for ten years; now she writes about it instead.

 

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