Large wind farms barely have an impact on efforts to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, they argue. They say utility-scale wind farms are uneconomic and make our electricity system unstable. The turbines also make people sick and cause property values to fall, not to mention the danger to bats, birds and butterflies, detractors say.
"There are legitimate concerns out there, and you've got to listen to them. That's what distinguishes between social friction and NIMBYism. But there are other concerns that aren't real," says Kris Stevens, executive director of the Ontario Sustainable Energy Association.
Stevens has closely studied the nature of social friction in Ontario's electricity sector, which is also the subject of his Master's thesis in environmental studies. Some people "don't like change," he says. "They're stuck in an older paradigm."
So, which concerns are real and which aren't? Let's investigate whether utility-scale wind energy is as green and economical as the industry and politicians paint it.
In the first three weeks of April, wind farms in Ontario generated 180,787 megawatt-hours of electricity the equivalent of a 356-megawatt coal plant running at 100 per cent, but without the emissions. During that period, wind generation in Ontario produced nearly as much electricity as the province's fleet of coal plants.
Yet, many activists opposed to wind energy say it fails to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. Michael Trebilcock, a professor of law and economics at the University of Toronto, wrote a commentary published last month by the C.D. Howe Institute arguing that there is "no evidence" industrial wind power is likely to have a significant impact on carbon emissions.
He points to Denmark, saying the European leader in wind development has yet to close a single fossil-fuel plant and requires 50 per cent more coal to cover the unpredictability of its wind farms.
That's shocking news to Poul Erik Morthorst, a senior energy researcher at the National Laboratory for Sustainable Energy at the Technical University of Denmark.
"In recent years, we have seen quite a number of old plants being decommissioned, and this can partly be seen as a consequence of increased wind power capacity," he wrote in a email.
In 2007, for example, electricity generated from coal and natural gas fell 19 per cent and 26.6 per cent, respectively, compared with the previous year, according to the Danish Energy Agency. Renewable power, about 67 per cent of it from wind, increased 11.1 per cent.
Since 1990, carbon dioxide emissions in Denmark have fallen 13.3 per cent, even though gross energy consumption has increased 6.7 per cent over the period. In some years, when CO2 emissions rise slightly, it has little to do with wind.
It's typically associated with burning more coal to offset a fall in hydroelectric generation in neighbouring Sweden and Norway during dry seasons.
Activist opponents, however, routinely point to an article published in February on the German news site Spiegel Online to argue their point that wind, despite the hype, is failing Europe. The headline of the article reads "Wind Turbines in Europe Do Nothing for Emissions-Reduction Goals."
But the article's target of criticism isn't actually wind.
It's a poorly designed carbon-trading system that doesn't adequately penalize generators of coal-based electricity. Too many carbon credits were given away in Europe, British economist Lord Nicholas Stern told the Star, a mistake already being corrected, he added.
"Wind turbines don't operate all the time, so you've got to back them up with natural gas," says Bill Palmer, an activist with Wind Concerns Ontario and a professional engineer who used to work for Ontario Power Generation (including predecessor Ontario Hydro) and nuclear operator Bruce Power.
Wind critics routinely claim that a megawatt of back-up generation based on natural gas is required for every one-megawatt wind turbine that's connected to the grid. The idea is that when the wind stops blowing, the natural gas plant can be fired up quickly to compensate.
Without a costly, 100 per cent back-up system, the grid becomes dangerously unreliable, critics such as Palmer argue.
Not true, says Ken Kozlik, chief operating officer of the Independent Electricity System Operator, which manages the supply and demand of electricity in Ontario.
"I've heard these conversations suggesting wind needs this dance partner, and I think that's a narrow perspective," Kozlik says. He adds that every form of power generation needs some degree of back-up, or "operating reserve," to account for occasions when, for example, a nuclear reactor goes unexpectedly offline.
"Everything needs a dance partner."
Much of that back-up capacity already exists, or is being built to support the province's strategy of phasing out coal-fired generation. Without wind energy, those plants would have to consume more natural gas to compensate for our reduction in coal use.
But as wind energy is increasingly added to the mix, more megawatt-hours of this emission-free energy are captured, meaning less natural gas is burned over time. "It's an energy source, so when the wind is available we grab it," Kozlik says.
There is, however, a penalty for using natural gas this way. Akin to stop-and-start traffic reducing car mileage, constantly increasing and decreasing the output of a natural gas plant affects its efficiency, meaning more gas is burned for the megawatt-hours that are produced.
Still, researchers at Pittsburgh's Carnegie Mellon University estimated in a peer-reviewed study published in December that "carbon-dioxide emissions reductions from a wind plus natural gas system are likely to be 75 to 80 per cent of those presently assumed by policymakers." And some hydroelectric facilities are flexible enough to quickly dial up or down their output, depending on the fluctuations of wind.
There's no doubt that over time wind generation will represent such a large part of the power mix that more back-up generation will eventually be required, but we're a long way from that, says Kozlik.
And it could be a non-issue when that day comes. Ontario is looking at building hydroelectric pumped storage facilities that would act as huge water batteries, capable of storing massive amounts of energy from wind and dispatching the power as needed.
Technological advances are also coming fast. New wind turbines are expected to be more efficient, less noisy, and equipped with sensors that can better detect when the wind is about to change direction, speed up, or slow down.
But is capturing that wind today worth the price we pay? Those opposed to the development of industrial wind farms argue that wind is simply uncompetitive without massive subsidies, and that taxpayers shouldn't be saddled with the cost.
In Ontario, the power authority has been directed to pay 13.5 cents for every kilowatt-hour of wind energy generated under a standard, 20-year contract.
"More than twice what consumers currently pay for electricity," writes Trebilcock, adding that this excludes any cost of additional transmission and back-up generation that's required.
He calls wind generation "a good example of what can go wrong when governments pick winners."
But comparing the price paid for wind power today against the price paid for electricity generated largely from investments made 25 to 100 years ago ignores the fact that wind or no wind, the cost of power generation in the years to come is going up no matter what technology we choose.
Wesley Stevens, an energy analyst at Navigant Consulting, which supplies research to the Ontario Power Authority, says the idea that wind is uneconomical is misguided.
Nobody truly knows the cost of a new nuclear plant, but best estimates today place it at $7,000 per megawatt of installed capacity. That works out to about $21 billion for a 3,000-megawatt plant, excluding the cost of managing nuclear waste, end-of-life decommissioning and transmission upgrades.
If the same power capacity and energy were to come from a combination of wind and natural gas, Stevens estimates we would need about 8,000 megawatts of wind and 2,500 megawatts of gas-fired capacity.
"The wind capacity would cost about $18 billion, and the gas plants would be about $3 billion. So the capital cost would be roughly the same at $21 billion," he says, adding that the operating cost would also be in the same ballpark. That is, the cost of nuclear fuel and processing would be close to the cost of the natural gas fuel.
The wind, of course, is free energy once the turbines are there. "The gas plants would not need to run very often. I'm estimating about 12 per cent of the time."
Other economic considerations also come into play. Researchers at the Technical University of Denmark have been studying the impact that wind power has on spot-market prices for energy.
They found that when the wind was generating and being sold into the market, wholesale prices fell. Between 2004 and 2007 they observed that spot prices fell between 2 per cent and 15 per cent in three different regions of Denmark.
This translated into savings for consumers that exceeded the feed-in tariff premiums being paid for the wind.
Ralph Torrie, also an energy consultant at Navigant, says there's a large transition going on in the electricity industry and we're just beginning to understand the impact.
"It's worldwide. It's very profound, and it has to do not just with wind power, but smart-grid technologies, solar, and others. When it has run its course, we will be looking at an electricity system that's quite different than we're used to."