There's trouble blowing in the wind

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Big wind farms in financial or deadline trouble, sometimes being bailed out by Nova Scotia Power, are almost daily fare on the business pages these days. Like much of the rest of the world, we've cast wind as the saviour in our quest for green energy. Here's stuff we should know while we still have time to reset our options.

In Spain, Italy, the U.S. and elsewhere, big wind power scams have erupted, the result of hundreds of billions of dollars in subsidies being pumped into wind with little control. Some politicians and entrepreneurs are already in jail.

"It's the same mentality as a Texas oil strike," a crusading lawyer in the Spanish Canary Islands, chasing down a major scandal, told the New York Times a few weeks ago. "This is a gold rush, and everybody wants a wind park at whatever price."

Plus, there are questions about whether big wind is doing what it's supposed to do -- reduce carbon emissions. Spain's carbon emissions have gone up dramatically (30 per cent over the last 10 years) despite being one of the world's leading wind power countries. Major analyses have questioned to what extent wind has contributed to Demark and Germany's relatively better carbon performances.

And there are battles against wind farms wherever people are too close, and health and property values are at stake. A defining study entitled "Wind Turbine Syndrome" has been written by a Dr. Nina Pierpont of New York, as the scientific literature mounts on the problematic effects of noise and subsonic waves. Denials and cover-ups are increasingly reported. Recently there was an uproar in Britain as the government was caught doctoring a report on decibel levels at wind farms.

In Nova Scotia, there's citizen opposition in places too, notably at Digby Neck and back of Bailey's Brook on the hill range between New Glasgow and Antigonish, where the complaint is that citizen participation has been shunted aside. This project, called Glen Dhu, to be built by Shear Wind Inc. of Bedford (recently bailed out by a Spanish billionaire who took a big chunk of the company) promoted the project as being two kilometres away from the nearest homes, upped that to three kilometres, but when the application was filed, according to the citizen group opposing the project, it was 640 metres. And the number of turbines started as between 30 and 60, but rose to 130.

The group, the Eco Awareness Society, also filed a complaint with the Nova Scotia Environment Department accusing Shear Wind of providing false or misleading information, mainly on noise effects, in its environmental assessment application. The Environment Department investigated and found no offence.

There is a risk that when the big policy rig is rolling with tens of millions of dollars aboard, the small stuff, including truth and transparency, gets flattened. That's the time to ask questions about where the contraption is going.

The issue isn't the value of wind power as such. It's part of the solution. It's just that, as with ethanol or biomass, any idea that sounds good goes to extremes immediately on the fantasy that these alternatives can replace existing energy sources seamlessly and we won't have to change our ways.

Neal Livingston of Mabou, who has been struggling to make it in the alternate energy field for 30 years -- and just got a contract with Nova Scotia Power for a six megawatt project involving three to four turbines -- says it might not be a bad thing if some of these huge wind projects collapsed.

Since the energy issue is not just that, but also an issue of economics and what kind of society we want for the future as conventional energy gets squeezed, it might inject some realism into the policy picture.

What we need, he says, are community-sized wind projects, owned by local people, that are part of a mix of solar, conservation and others -- and the policies to make that happen. "The problems with wind you've described to me are mostly problems with big capitalism."

Meanwhile, Bill Phillips, a retired electrical engineer with NSP and its predecessors, phoned to thank me for suggesting we connect to Hydro-Quebec to sidestep our big wind policy muddle, as I did last week.

Wind, he said, "has a place, but not as significant a place as it's made out to be." But it was "as an NSPI investor" that he was really bothered. The utility was spending "$100 million on Nuttby Mountain alone" -- a wind farm it took over from a failed private operator.

Indeed, along with citizen protests, fraud, a subsidy-driven bubble and so on, we have the question of how much big wind is going to cost and who's going to pay if it doesn't add up.

Ralph Surette is a veteran freelance journalist living in Yarmouth County.

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