Small communities howl over wind turbines

INNISFIL TOWNSHIP, ONTARIO - As Innisfil resident Gaye Trombley held a news conference to protest plans for a small wind farm in her fast-growing Ontario community, legendary oil baron T. Boone Pickens unveiled an energy plan calling for wind power to supply 20 per cent of United States electricity needs.

Both messages were clear: the stunning growth in wind power across North America is just getting started, and not everybody is happy about it.

The stage is being set for a battle usually associated with plans to build transmission lines or garbage incinerators. Wind, on the surface, is an easy sell. It doesn't require fuel, farmers can earn revenue by leasing their land and the energy produced is emission-free. Pickens, who made billions as an oil entrepreneur, has wondered publicly why the U.S. didn't get into wind energy earlier.

The 80-year-old oil tycoon plans to spend $10 billion (US) to build the world's largest wind farm in Texas, bringing credibility to a source of renewable energy maligned by some in the fossil-fuel and nuclear industries as uneconomical, unreliable and backed by ill-informed politicians.

Last month, the United Kingdom government approved a plan for 7,000 offshore wind turbines off the British coastline over the next 12 years. Wind projects are sprouting up across rural Ontario and interest is growing in offshore development in the Great Lakes.

But attempts to put more wind power into the province's grid, complicated by a chronic lack of transmission capacity, have been far from smooth.

Trombley, for instance, who operates an organic apple orchard, wants to derail plans by Toronto-based Schneider Power Inc. for a relatively small, five-turbine wind farm along Hwy. 400 south of Barrie.

The project will be a visual distraction in an accident-prone transportation corridor, Trombley argued during a phone interview. The noisy turbines will be too close to residents.

"I'm in favour of all forms of renewable energy that are efficient, effective and safe," said Trombley, chair of the Innisfil Windwatchers Association, a small group of locals who say they support wind energy – they just don't want to see it.

"This is an agricultural area, and there are residents here who aren't in favour of the visibility of five 100-foot turbines in their backyard."

Thomas Schneider, president of Schneider Power, said his company has worked closely with the community and has the support of the Innisfil council and most residents. He said the company tried hard to address legitimate concerns, but has to draw the line somewhere.

"There are two or three highly organized individuals that are putting this show together," he said. "As usual, it's all about change, and people don't like change. The Innisfil Windwatchers... oppose everything."

He said planned sites for the turbines were even changed to accommodate concerns of a small local business that organizes skydiving.

"Wind is great, but only if done right."

Shawn-Patrick Stensil, a renewable energy advocate with Greenpeace Canada, said some developers no doubt need to do a better job working with communities and making sure projects aren't being rammed down peoples' throats. Some locations for wind projects, he agreed, are simply not appropriate.

"A lot has to do with the personality of the developers," he said. "Some of the proponents out there sometimes can act like the old oil and gas companies. The engineering mentality is, we built it, we come, rather than approaching a community with friendly dialogue."

The key, added Stensil, is to move beyond nimbyism, or "Not In My Back Yard," to a more collaborative approach that has communities feeling empowered and actively saying,"Yes, In My Back Yard."

One project facing opposition is the 86-turbine Wolfe Island Wind Project proposed by Canadian Renewable Energy Corp., a division of Calgary-based Canadian Hydro Developers.

Lake Ontario Waterkeeper, the group concerned about the project, says members are "pro-wind" and aren't arguing just for the project to be scrapped.

The group wants the project scaled down slightly – by 15 turbines – to reduce density on the northwest section of the island, where there are sensitive wetlands and species and known bird migration routes.

Musician Sarah Harmer said the original plan for 10 to 20 turbines got community backing.

"Then it bumped up to 46, and then 86 turbines. I think it has really divided people. It's heartbreaking."


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