An Ill Wind – Updated

Well, next week Algonquin Power is holding an ‘open house’ here on the island to reveal where they are going to locate their huge wind turbines. At 500’ these will be some of the largest around – up 20% from the Wolfe Island wind farm due to the much poorer (marginal according to the Ontario wind atlas and confirmed by my own weather data) wind resource. Was reading the pontification’s of the various MPPs in the Ontario legislature from Thursday against a private member bill to impose a moratorium on wind farm development until the impact was assessed. A pretty frightening landscape, all things considered.
It struck me this evening on how totally 19th (or perhaps even 18th) century these attitudes are. Here we have a bunch of well-connected developers in close cooperation with the government that pushes the locals out of the way to do something that profits them alone. And we all get to pay for it but our concerns about what is being done are dismissed out of hand. It brings to mind the rather callous and cavalier way the invading Europeans divided up the native lands and pushed the tribes out of the way. Nothing personal, this was business…
Roughly 100 years ago Canada and the United States signed a treaty to not interfere with migratory birds. Odd, is it not, that the primary locations for wind farms in Ontario are bird sanctuaries along migratory routes? And Amherst Island, where we live, is the next to fall. One wonders how the Owls and other raptors who winter here will take to the noise and physical hazards of these 50 story monsters? Remember, owls hunt by sound – what is the impact to them when the background noise gets raised 10-20db or more?
The public logic behind these behemoths is that they are green and provide power without that dreaded CO2 emission. But the dirty little secret is that in huge quantities wind-based power needs a source of backup power to step in and fill the gaps when the wind abruptly drops. This is provided by gas generators that idle wastefully so they can spin up at a moments notice – and produce huge quantities of greenhouse gases. Most places that use wind have noticed that due to the backup power requirements they produce more greenhouse gasses than they did with conventional combustion processes.  And even worse, wind power tends to be out of synch with the power demands of society — producing most in winter and overnight while the province uses the most electricity in summer and during the day.  The Ontario auditor said that 86% of wind power is sold outside at bargain basement prices — but there is no public source of information to confirm this (but it is similar to the experience of Europe).  So we are all net worse off – but this is typical. Remember plant-based ethanol? Originally added to motor fuel to conserve petroleum, not only did it require lots of fuel to produce and distill but cars and trucks ran more inefficiently with it than without. So more petroleum than ever is being burned to support this ‘eco-friendly’ initiative. Sigh.
Ever read a wind farm environmental assessment? The one for Wolfe Island was a real treat. I am sure the fiction produced for Amherst Island will be similar. In the executive summary there was a pious pronouncement about the mitigation strategies being planned for potential bird kills. In the details it was much blunter — ‘lots of birds will be killed’ is what it netted out to. Collateral damage – just like the property values of the retirement homes for the people who moved out here to escape the noise of the city. And the farms on the interior who are about to discover what happens to their water supply when huge holes get blasted in the bedrock.
Not that there is any chance of it, but one thing I would wish for is a truth in packaging kind of statement – instead of ‘this project will provide power for a city the size of Oshawa’ (sure, on a good day when then wind is right) they would say something like ‘this project will raise Ontario power rates for consumers by 0.5 cents a kilowatt’. And let us not forget the economic cost of the millions of dollars in lost property tax revenues (due to the statutory value exclusion) and lost property values on the involuntary uninvolved. They get no benefit, pay for it with higher power prices and get their pockets picked and homes destroyed all at once. Real 19th century colonial exploitation at work.
So I am wondering what will bring it all to a halt? My bet is a wind farm mediated provincial blackout or a mass fatality from a collapsed turbine or thrown blade. After all, the generous provincial setbacks are barely 3 times the height so distance is little protection.  And once installed these things will be here until the next time the glaciers march down from the north. As far as I know only one turbine has ever been de-installed. And that cost more than building the thing. No, these huge towers will be a blight forever – joining the 14,000 derelict turbines in North America over time. Maintenance is non-trivial so as they age the tendency is to just abandon them.
Anyhow, as my Dad used to say – the fix is in and no mere mortal can oppose things. A pity the cost to ourselves and society at large will be catastrophic. But who cares? The ‘right’ people made money on it and that was all that mattered.

Well, we went to the open house and were amazed at what was being proposed.  Makes me even more curious as to the real economic driver for the project. Engineering best practices for wind farm design call for separating the turbines by six to 10 rotor diameters (113m blade circle or roughly 800m minimum) and yet these appear to be less than 500m apart. Inter-turbine turbulence degrades power output and the latest research suggests even larger separations are needed for best results.  And more disturbing was the clustering of turbines around island bird refuges and the world famous Owl Woods.  And the project folks were claiming an achievable capacity factor higher than any in Ontario — even higher than Wolfe Island (next island to the east) that has far better winds but only manages to produce 1/4th of the time.  And it could be just my imagination, but the turbine placement managed to miss the locations shown on the Ontario Wind Atlas for the stronger winds.  And the ‘experts’ available from the company to ‘answer’ questions seemed to be unaware of even basic physics — one ‘expert’ claimed that sound does not propagate through rock (the basis of seismology and most oil prospecting) so transmission from the turbines to our homes could not be a problem.  (My guess is the real reason is that they will spend most of their time standing still — except during the occasional violent storms that we get.  But if one of these beasts blows over (Scotland last week) or throws a blade (New York last year) it probably won’t hit us.)  But then these ‘experts’ have an economic incentive to favor the company over even recognized and established science — so all potential problems are denied out of hand.  I guess we will all have to wait until all the partisans are dead before we even know the truth about this whole issue.  As is often the case the supply of truth greatly exceeds the demand. This was clear from the way the meetings and protests were covered — most of the material published came from those who will make money from the project.  Very little was printed from those who are being sacrificed. It is curious, considering how much has been written about the poor economics of wind turbines and the harm they inflict, that the answer to the question of ‘how many people does it have to harm before it becomes wrong’ seems to be everybody but the advocates.

One other ugly thought has been on my mind of late.  Researchers are starting to realize that wind turbines affect climate by promoting a higher degree of atmospheric mixing downwind than would otherwise exist.  The net effect appears to be that the downwind areas get warmer and drier.  This should make an interesting combination with a forecast rapid increase in Canadian wildfires.

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