Turbine issues are still blowing in the wind across the province

Health concerns must be balanced with energy benefits, advocates argue

wind turbines
wind turbines

Going back more than 15 years, tall, ungainly, otherworldly industrial wind turbines have been springing up on Ontario’s rural landscape, churning controversy in their wake.

At the time, the provincial government had mandated wind power and provided millions of dollars in incentives to contractors to get the turbines up and running as an alternative source of electricity. 

However, complaints about noise pollution and environmental harm have never really wound down.

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Many farmers and other landowners deemed to have sufficient wind flow on their properties were only too happy to sign long-term site leases with companies looking to install turbines of various capacities in such Eastern Ontario locations as North Stormont (29 turbines), South Dundas (10) and Wolfe Island across from Kingston (86).

It was an easy way for them to put extra cash in the bank and, in most cases, crops could still be planted and livestock grazed within the shadow of the turbine towers, which stretch as high as 280 feet topped by blades extending 170 feet.

The Tibben family farm at Brinston in South Dundas contracted with EDP Renewables to host four turbines when that project launched about eight years ago. At the time, property owners were getting about $20,000 a year per installation over a 20-year contract. Mark Tibben says his contract also contains a percentage of revenues clause. 

His  family has been satisfied with the relationship with EDP. Tibben says the company responds quickly to any repair and maintenance requirements. However, he agrees the machinery can be noisy, depending on which way and how forcefully the wind is blowing. But he doesn’t see it as a major nuisance.

The contract states that, after 20 years, the Tibben windmills will either be decommissioned at company expense or an extension negotiated. Tibben says he expects the turbines to be retrofitted with the latest technology at the end of the term and pressed back into service.

Until the Doug Ford government put the brakes on so-called wind farms, numbers grew to the point where there are now some 2,630 industrial turbines dotted across the province. Combined, they generate 2,750 megawatts of capacity, only three per cent of provincial demand. While the current government hasn’t said no to future wind power installations, its focus is on hydroelectric expansion, which it feels is one of the cleanest, most reliable energy sources in the world. The government has asked Ontario Power Generation to examine new hydroelectric development in northern Ontario.

Resistance to turbines for health, safety and environmental reasons hasn’t let up. In fact, lobby group Wind Concerns Ontario (WCO) is revving up its opposition.

One of the biggest complaints about turbines from residents has always been noise from the spinning blades, rotor, generator, gearbox and other components. WCO argues that creating distance is the only reliable buffer and is pushing for a two-kilometre setback across the province.

Current provincial regulations cite a minimum of 550 metres, which is inadequate to protect health and safety, says WCO president Jane Wilson, a registered nurse based in North Gower. She notes that residents have been complaining by the thousands about turbine noise since installation in the province began.

A two-kilometre setback would put Ontario in line with other jurisdictions, she says, including Bavaria, Germany, as well as Spain, Sweden, Scotland and Poland, where setbacks are one to two kilometres. 

Wilson notes that the provincial government said it would revise setback regulations. However, that hasn’t occurred, with turbine-locating powers handed off to municipalities in 2019 under an amended Planning Act. One Ontario municipality, Dutton-Dunwich, has implemented a two-kilometre setback.

Wilson says an extended setback must apply across the board to residential, work and farm locations, as well as health-care facilities and schools. A new setback must also apply to repowering existing turbines. 

“The current practice of grandfathering existing turbines isn’t appropriate in light of the evidence,” Wilson says.

WCO is also investigating noise audits, which must be filed by wind-generated electricity projects.

“According to information available, only 43 per cent of projects have demonstrated compliance,” Wilson says, adding that the provincial government has received close to 7,000 formal incident reports documenting noise pollution from 2006 to 2018.

“In fact, 47 per cent of the projects are either incomplete or still under review, some for as long as nine years,” she notes. For example, the status of the South Branch project in South Dundas is “incomplete” after almost eight years.

Noise pollution is a known factor in sleep disturbance, which can lead to high blood pressure and other cardiac problems, Wilson points out. Unlike other power-plant technologies with numerous noise control options, only distance can ease the aggravation when it comes to turbines.

On another front, the Multi-Municipal Wind Turbine Working Group, after reviewing six Ontario “catastrophic” failures, claims mistakes were made when turbines were installed under former provincial governments.

Each failure resulted in significant portions of the blades or the towers hitting the ground some distance from the base. The circumstances increased the group’s insistence that action is required to “formally investigate these incidents.”

In addition to extended setbacks, WCO is calling for a formal third-party public process to investigate the failures; complete comprehensive inspections of existing wind projects; requirements for ongoing predictive maintenance to allow early identification of problems; and a review of emergency response procedures submitted by wind turbine proponents.

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