If you are concerned about global warming and the effects that atmospheric carbon levels are even now having, then wind energy looks like a no-brainer. Clearly not everyone agrees.
February 1st, the first appeal of a Renewable Energy Approval certificate in Ontario began, focusing on a small wind farm being developed by Suncor Energy Inc. The Kent Breeze wind farm, once constructed, will have eight turbines with 20 MW total capacity. At issue are claims that the windfarm will cause serious harm to human health as a result of exposure to to the infrasound and/or low frequency noise and shadow flicker from wind turbines. The appeal hearing is expected to take until March 31st and involve 16 days of testimony.
Similarly, High Country News has long followed the controversy regarding wind power development in Wyoming. On the surface the debate in Wyoming appears to be about preserving Sage Grouse and the aesthetic of undeveloped ranchland. However, digging deeper and it becomes a conflict between oil and gas interests and wind (see Wind Resistance: Will the petrocracy - and greens - keep Wyoming from realizing its windy potential?, Deccember 2009):
"Look closer, however, and you'll find that much of the resistance to wind actually comes from the fossil fuel industry and the politics it bankrolls. Wyoming is the largest coal producer in the nation and the third-largest producer of natural gas; at least one town is named after an oil company. Severance taxes and royalties from these industries keep the state's government, schools and other services afloat. In an indirect and sometimes convoluted way, wind threatens that old-school energy dynamic. At an August symposium on wind energy at the University of Wyoming in Laramie, Aaron Clark, an advisor to the governor, put it candidly: "We can't let wind development hurt the state's revenue stream from extractive minerals."
The Cape Wind went through a nine year of regulatory process with opposition from no less than Sentaor Ted Kennedy, who appeared to fear the impact on his holiday home's vistas over Nantucket Sound - and its still in the courts!
And its not just in North America. Back in August 2009, Greenpeace U.K. voiced its concerns about local councils' negative stance towards onshore wind farms:
".... of the reasons Britain’s green industrial revolution is yet to take off is the lack of domestic demand for wind turbines, and a key reason for that has been the attitude of many Conservative councils ..... a key factor behind the woes is a backlash against onshore wind farms by local authorities concerned about damage to the value of citizens’ property and to the environment — including local bird populations."
Much of the negative sentiment seems to arise because some people don't like looking at the turbines (from one description of 1.5 MW turbines: "From its base to the tip of its rotor, the GE 1.5 megawatt wind turbine is 380 feet tall. Each rotor blade is 122 feet long.") or see them as a threat to their property values (although, some of the controversy appears to be driven by entrenched industries with no interest in change). In a word, a classic case of NIMBY'ism. And while these types of arguments always seem to be advanced in terms of environmental or human-health claims, how real are the claims?
Earlier this month, in an effort to address the burgeoning concerns, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service issued voluntary Draft Land-Based Wind Energy Guidelines. These Guidelines have been a long-time coming. The Fish & Wildlife Service introduction to the Guidelines that is on their website suggests a gestation of more than eight years:
"In July 2003, the Service released for a set of voluntary, interim guidelines for land-based, wind energy projects to assist developers in avoiding, minimizing and/or compensating for effects to fish, wildlife, and their habitats. Following an extended two-year public comment period, the Secretary of the Interior established the Wind Turbine Guidelines Advisory Committee under the auspices of the Federal Advisory Committee Act in March 2007 to provide the recommendations for the final guidelines. The Committee was comprised of a diversity of stakeholders, including federal, tribal, state, private industries and conservation organizations. After two years of deliberations, the Committee submitted their final recommendations to the Secretary on March 4, 2010. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service then convened an internal working group representing several Service programs to review the Committee recommendations. The working group used the recommendations as a basis to develop the Service’s proposed wind energy guidelines."
The Guidelines are intended to guide site-selection of land-based, wind energy projects, addressing the potential negative effects of wind energy development on fish, wildlife, and their habitats.
Briefly, the Guidelines are based on a five tiered approach to habitat and wildlife protection, including:
Tier 1 – Preliminary evaluation or screening of potential sites
Tier 2 – Site characterization
Tier 3 – Pre-construction monitoring and assessments
Tier 4 – Post-construction monitoring of effects
Tier 5 – Research
At each of the site-selection levels, users are asked to assess the risk of future impacts on wildlife and wildlife habitat based on consideration of the species available, presenece of high value habitat (including "intact habitat" - as the Fish & Wildlife Service states in the Introduction, "many of North America's native landscapes are greatly diminished or degraded from multiple causes unrelated to wind energy". So as the dispute in Wyoming shows, wind may just be the latest layer of impacts in the cake - and probably not even the most significant.)
Once the decision to site a wind farm has been made, the Guidelines also provide best practice mitigation and management approaches - although, not in great detail.
As someone who sits down from time to time to develop similar types of guidelines, I would say that they are well thought out and drafted. And they are complimented by guidance to address risks specific to eagles in the Draft Eagle Conservation Plan Guidance as well as by the creation of a new website which the Service is promising to maintain with new and emerging best practice as it becomes comes available.
Will this address many of the concerns around wind farms and wind turbines? I suspect not.
It appears to be a useful tool for addressing wildlife concerns associated wind development. However, much of the concern around wind farms and many other kinds of development is much more visceral than the objective environmental or health concerns often cited. It comes down to a fear of change and a desire to control the change in our own environments. The conflicts also say something about the uneven spread of impacts and benefits. For those living next to a wind farm the global environmental benefits of wind energy may mean little to them.
I was struck by the author's statement at the end of the article about Wyoming's wind farm conflicts:
"I slither through the fence and walk up to a turbine, until I'm directly beneath its blades. The only sound is a low-pitched sort of watery sigh, kind of like a slowed-down version of an unborn baby's heartbeat on an ultrasound. No gears grind or scream on this solitary giant, nothing spews out of it, no drill bits penetrate, and no strange fluids are shot into or sucked out of the earth. The wind blows, the arms turn, and electrons flow through cables, down the tower, under the ground, and into the power lines where they'll join up with the coal-generated electrons 13 miles away. They flow into the bloodstream of the omnipotent, tentacled organism called the grid. Somewhere, someone flips a switch. And there is light."
It says a lot about these types of conflicts - our points of comparison, our awareness of the effects of our decisions and our choices - and much too rational for most of us.