Saturday, September 25, 2010

Ontario's wind power gusto risks blowback

By LARRY CORNIES, Special to QMI Agency
Last Updated: September 25, 2010 12:00am

On one of the photo websites I regularly visit, an Ontario photographer this week posted a picture of the wind turbines that tower like steel Goliaths along the north side of Hwy. 3 between Blenheim and Wheatley.

The photo, bathed in sepia tones with two turbines in the foreground and three farther back, was intended as an admiring tribute to the potential of alternative energy sources, including wind power.

Within minutes, however, a comment appeared under the photo from a British photographer: "You show the stark ugliness of these largely useless machines very well." That brief exchange pretty much sums up the divide between the champions and detractors of Ontario's turbulent green energy industry.

Some think it points the way forward, positioning the province to stake its claim to an industry still in its wild-west phase. Others see it as regressive and illogical, its projects as ugly as they are intrusive and impractical.

Along the Lake Huron, Lake Erie and Lake Ontario shorelines, the prospect of more and more wind turbines on land and in the water has sharply divided people in ways that transcend NIMBYism.

Some landowners have eagerly signed the long-term leases dangled before them by fledgling energy companies, offering annual payments of $5,000 or more per turbine for the right to erect the giant machine and build the road needed to maintain it. Others landowners have rejected the offers, reasoning that the effects of the towering electric installations on people and the environment are still too unclear -- and the esthetic effect on the landscape too obtrusive -- to sign away the rights for two decades.

Those who do opt for signing contracts can find themselves surrounded by resentful neighbours worried about the health effects of prolonged exposure to low-level turbine noise and electrical interference.

They're backed by experts such as Dr. Robert McMurtry, former dean of medicine at the University of Western Ontario, who worries that not enough epidemiological studies have been done by arm's-length investigators into what look like legitimate health concerns.

Signs proclaiming "No wind turbines in our lake" have dotted the landscape along the shore of Lake Erie's Pigeon Bay, adjacent to Point Pelee National Park, and on Pelee Island for many months -- a campaign directed primarily against SouthPoint Wind, which wants to build turbines in the shallow waters along the ecologically sensitive coastline.

While it's too early for the protesters to claim victory, their spirits were lifted when local MPPs Bruce Crozier and Pat Hoy presented a petition against the project -- and their own government -- at Queen's Park in June. Weeks later, the government imposed new rules that will require offshore projects to be set at least five kilometres from shore, ratcheting up the cost. That may be enough to unplug the SouthPoint project.

Last week at a public meeting in Clinton, protesters took aim at another Liberal MPP, Carol Mitchell, over the province's Green Energy Act and provisions in it that degrade the right of municipalities to control green energy projects -- all for the sake of quickly creating both jobs and electrical power.

Premier Dalton McGuinty, who has pledged more than $15 billion in projects and subsidies to attract green-energy companies to the province, seems not to appreciate the force of the blowback he risks by pushing local interests aside.

Is he right to see the future of Ontario as linked to technological innovation in the energy sector? Absolutely. Should Ontario aim to be a world leader in green power? Yes, please.

But given the uncertain economics of wind power, the failures of the industry in countries such as Britain and Spain, the surging price of energy, the comparatively low output of individual turbines and the plain unreliable nature of the wind, sea and sky compared to traditional sources, the scheme is fraught with danger.

Add soaring electricity prices and miffed rural constituencies to the mix, and you have the potential for real blowback against the Liberals next year, when energy is likely to become an election issue.

For some rural Ontarians, the diktat of central planners in urban capitals over wind power is going over about as well as the federal strategy to stop the emerald ash borer did a few years ago. That resulted in the destruction of hundreds of hectares of woodland in the name of the environment -- with nary a bit to show for it in the end.


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