Thursday, 6 October 2011

Put wind farms in the right place

Owen Sound Sun Times
Letter to the Editor
October 1, 2011
Joshua Wise, Ontario Nature

For the full article, click here.

As we head into the last days before the Oct. 6 election, a hot topic of debate in rural Ontario has focused on the pros and cons of developing wind turbines as a form of green energy production.

Regrettably, many people are digging in their heels, either for or against, without adequate consideration of a reasonable middle ground.

In the face of the two greatest environmental challenges of our time -- climate change and biodiversity loss -- we should not settle into these two warring camps.

While controversy has focused on issues of health, economics and community control, wind energy opponents also often raise the spectre of potential harm to wildlife, especially birds and bats.

This is of course a key concern of conservation organizations like Ontario Nature.

And it puts us in an interesting position. On one hand, we are painfully aware of the deadly impacts of projects when they are poorly sited in habitats of importance to birds and bats.

The clearest example is the Wolfe Island wind farm near Kingston where 86 turbines began producing electricity in July 2009.

The casualty rate for birds at this site -- 16.5 per turbine -- is about seven times the industry average, making it the deadliest wind plant for birds in Canada. Why? Because it was built in a globally significant Important Bird Area.

Sadly, a number of the species most hard hit, such as tree swallows and bobolinks, are experiencing serious population declines in general -- the bobolink was added to Ontario's endangered species list last year.

Under the circumstances, it is easy to understand why our supporters are up in arms about wind projects that have been proposed within, or next to, significant wildlife habitats.

If we multiply the Wolfe Island deaths by the number of wind farms that may go up the province -- or, indeed, across North America -- the potential cumulative impact is alarming, if projects are not carefully sited.

On the other hand, when compared to other forms of energy production, even other sources of renewable energy, wind power may be the least of our worries.

A 2009 study by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority comparing the risks to wildlife from coal, oil, natural gas, nuclear, hydro and wind energy production found that wind was the most benign.

This finding was based on a lifecycle analysis that considered extraction, transportation, facility construction and decommissioning, and power generation and transmission.

In another 2009 study, published in Energy & Environmental Science, researchers compared the environmental impacts of 12 forms of electricity generation, including solar, wind, geothermal, hydroelectric, wave, tidal and ethanol. Again, wind came out on top as having the least impact overall.

So what does this mean? First from a wildlife conservation perspective it doesn't make sense to turn your back on wind power.

It has been estimated that every degree of global warming will lead to the extinction of between 100 and 500 bird species worldwide -- clearly, something must be done, and quickly, about the way we produce and consume energy.

At the same time, however, the government needs to set clear standards to ensure that projects are more carefully sited so that harm to birds, bats and other wildlife is avoided or minimized.

Putting wind farms in recognized Important Bird Areas just doesn't make sense, and should not be allowed.

No doubt, we will be faced with hard choices as we move towards more sustainable energy production.

Energy conservation is, of course, the first step, and even that will be challenging, given society's endless thirst for cheap, abundant energy.

But until we are willing and able to do without energy altogether we will need to choose among production options. Those who say no to wind mustn't forget that they are saying yes to other, potentially more harmful forms of energy.

At Ontario Nature we'd like to keep the green in green energy by putting wind farms in the right place.

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