BY GARY MAY
Some would call it a classic case of David smiting Goliath. Others say it’s more like environmentalist vs. environmental overkill.
One way or another, a lot of waterfront communities are heaving a huge sigh of relief after the Ontario government placed what it’s calling a “moratorium” on offshore wind turbine plans.
Jim Krushelniski of Kingsville says the decision is precisely what he and the members of the Citizens Against Lake Erie Wind Turbines (CALEWT) have been fighting for, along with like-minded organizations across the province. And for the foreseeable future, he says, Ontarians need not worry about any industrial-sized wind turbines going up along any nearby waterfronts.
But they’ll remain vigilant, vows the chairman of the CALEWT steering committee, because members are keenly aware that government decisions can always be reversed.
The move toward greener energy has not always been a smooth one, with environmental advocates frequently clashing over what is really environmentally friendly and what’s not. No new technology has caused more debate than wind turbines, and none more likely to pit environmental visions against one another than turbines placed in the waters of our Great Lakes.
It’s not surprising, then, that Ontario’s decision to slap a moratorium on offshore turbines would anger those keen to cash in on the rush to green energy, even as it elicited whoops of joy from those who’ve been warning the monster windmills were bound to play havoc with wildlife and become a blight on Ontario’s beautiful waterfront landscapes.
The province’s environment minister, John Wilkinson, said he was imposing the moratorium — of unspecified duration — because offshore wind turbines in freshwater lakes are a new concept that requires caution and lots of study. Land-based turbines have been long studied, Wilkinson added, so they won’t be affected by the moratorium.
First moratorium lasted two years
This is the second moratorium Ontario has placed on the offshore models. The first one, in 2006, lasted for two years. With a renewed sense of optimism, some believe this one will be permanent.
“This is what we’ve been asking for, from Day 1,” Krushelniski told MyNewWaterfrontHome.com. “We wanted an objective, third-party environmental assessment. Not one done by those advocating the turbines. We wanted a review of the impact on human health and on wildlife. That’s what we got. It could take years.”
But will this decision mean that 90-metre-tall (300 feet) industrial turbines will never be erected in Ontario’s waterways? Will this announcement finally stop proponents dead in their tracks?
The answer is: Perhaps. Toronto Hydro, which had proposed building turbines along the Lake Ontario shore, will now likely go back to “square one” and look at alternative energy sources, said spokesman Blair Peberdy. However, others plan to wait and see. The head of SouthPoint Wind, the Leamington-based proponent of 715 water-based turbines for lakes Erie and St. Clair, said that company remains committed to the concept and doesn’t intend to give up.
Ontario’s decision to back away from offshore turbines, at least for the time being, means that an American plan to build giant windmills in Lake Erie near Cleveland will likely be the first example on the Great Lakes. That means all eyes will be turning to the Ohio shoreline to await evidence of what potential mayhem — and benefits — could ensue.
Environmental concerns around water-based turbines include widespread killing of migratory birds, butterflies and bats, as well as the stirring up of long-buried toxins in the lakebed sediment (which could harm drinking water) and disruption of fish habitat. As well, no one has studied the impact heavy ice buildup could have on the turbines and their bases, and while ice is less frequently a concern in Lake Ontario, it would be a considerable fear in lakes Erie and St. Clair.
Opponents of offshore turbines will also be looking to Ohio’s experience for further evidence of what they say is the general inefficiency of wind power.
Each power-generating source is rated with an “efficiency factor,” meaning the percentage of the time the power source operates at peak performance. In the United States, it is estimated that 104 nuclear reactors operate at 90 per cent efficiency, while offshore wind turbines can be expected to produce at just 40 per cent efficiency. That figure drops even further in summer to just 25 per cent, when winds are usually lighter. But summer is also the time when plenty of electricity is required to maintain our demand for air conditioning.
As opposed to fossil fuels, neither wind nor nuclear emits carbon dioxide. But the fact that the relative inefficiency of offshore wind is so low means that fossil fuel-powered backup systems must be maintained. In fact, in the United States, not one coal-fired power station has ever been closed because of the installation of onshore wind turbines.
'A speck on the horizon'
Krushelniski says their inefficiency, as well as new alternative power sources, and the huge cost of construction that was going to require massive public financial assistance to make the turbines viable, could well turn them into unsightly white elephants in the next 10 years.
Nevertheless, advocates for wind power were angered by Ontario’s moratorium and accused the government of giving up its leadership position in the field of renewable and alternative energy. Robert Hornung, president of the industry-based Canadian Wind Energy Association, said the “unfortunate decision” will create uncertainty for investors in alternative energy.
And Rick Smith, executive director of the environmental advocacy group Environmental Defence, said a handful of “anti-wind extremists” has succeeded in shutting down a much-needed alternative to coal-fired generating stations. “These things would just be a speck on the horizon,” Smith claimed of the turbines.
Some specks! Not only do offshore towers stand as high as 90 metres above the water’s surface, each blade can measure 40 metres in length (130 feet). With a clear line of sight, towers that could be built as close as five kilometres from shore would not only be clearly visible, they could potentially add considerably to coastal noise pollution, with sound travelling unimpeded over the water.
In comparison, offshore wind turbines now operating in Europe have been erected in salt water, many kilometres from land. Only one fresh-water windmill has been erected — in Sweden — as a pilot project.
Turbine noise, meanwhile, is becoming a greater concern for some, even among those who had earlier been inclined to endorse land-based turbines. Across Ontario, there have been more than 100 complaints filed in connection with turbine noise, complaints that range from headaches, to nose bleeds and ringing ears.
Now, one of the studies Ontario has called for before deciding how to proceed is for additional information on human health risks. The other chief area of study is to be damage to the natural habitat.
But while the moratorium has allowed opponents of offshore turbines to breathe easier for the time being, there is still no guarantee that the concept is dead.
With Ontario facing a provincial election this fall, it seems as though the Liberal government has temporarily marginalized a potentially thorny political issue that threatened to do severe damage in some of the waterfront constituencies they currently hold.
Meanwhile, while the opposition New Democrats seem firmly opposed to offshore wind energy, the Conservatives have been far less clear, although Krushelniski believes the Conservatives have been “generally supportive” of the opponents’ point of view.
Nevertheless, “we’re going to be watching very carefully,” he added. Waterfront residents will have to wait to see how the matter plays out in the months and years to come.
MyNewWaterfrontHome.com — February 2011