May 6, 2009

Wind: The next battlefront

Janice Harvey, president of the New Brunswick Green Party, writes in today's Telegraph-Journal:

It’s as predictable as the wind. Now that big utilities and corporations have grabbed hold of wind energy, the controversies begin.

The first complaints were of the visual impact of wind farms on their landscapes and waterscapes. Now a new concern is emerging. People who live near wind turbines are complaining of health problems such as sleep disorders, migraines, tinnitus, equilibrium problems, depression and anxiety attacks, and in children, learning disabilities. A 2008 California study and a 2007 British study have dubbed the “wind turbine syndrome,” an effect on the inner ear by low energy noise from the turbines. There may also be an effect from air pressure changes from the turning turbines.

I first heard of this last year. A CBC radio documentary featured a family in southwestern Nova Scotia driven out of their home by the new wind installation nearby. Their story demonstrated, as do all the similar stories that are cropping up around the world, that we have learned nothing from the past century of hyper-industrialization. Regardless of technology or intention, scale and intensity matter. Indeed, it has been the vast scale and intensity of industrialization that has pushed the impact of economic development way beyond any reasonable thresholds of ecological and human tolerance. (For an eye-opening read on this topic, check out J. N. McNeill’s Something New under the Sun: An Environmental History of the 20th Century).

In the wind farm case, scale and intensity imply squeezing as much energy as possible out of each unit, and locating as many units on as large a portion of the landscape as possible. This results in mind-boggling dimensions for both individual turbines and wind farms.

The third leg of this stool is the pervasive pro-development bias within regulatory agencies, which ultimately expresses itself as a dismissive attitude towards public concerns. I’ve heard the story of the Nova Scotia family a thousand times. They are suffering real health problems as recounted above. The company’s response? They followed all the rules; no studies have proven a direct link between wind turbines and health effects; their own noise monitoring revealed levels below probable health effects. The bureaucrats echo the company line: the environmental impact assessment was done, no effects predicted. Therefore, there must be no effects. The family must be imagining their symptoms or, if they had them, they couldn’t possibly be connected to the new kid on the block — the wind turbine.

This contemptuous attitude is being repeated all over the world where these mega-wind farms are being built. The technology may have changed, but the business of doing business is the same. The companies circle the wagons and the government rides shotgun.

It doesn’t have to be that way. All governments, including Canada’s, present at the 1992 Earth Summit in Brazil endorsed the precautionary principle as an alternative to the conventional risk-based approach to environmental management. The precautionary approach states that the lack of scientific proof is not a justification for inaction in protecting against potential harm. Using this approach, the government simply needs to establish siting requirements for wind farms that assume there is a potential for health effects associated with the large-scale interference with air currents. These requirements would establish a mandatory setback from any dwelling based on the growing body of evidence of health impacts and incorporating a good margin of error. Such setback would be adjusted as more research is done.

There should also be a limit on the number of hectares that can be covered in any one location. If humans are being affected by changes in air pressure and noise, so are animals. The larger the wind farm footprint, the more habitat is being removed for some species.

In this current economic system, being precautionary would make wind farms “uneconomic.” We need a new business model in which people and the ecosystems on which all life depend come first. No more cost-benefit analyses in which economic benefits to some come at the expense of others. No more pollution- and illness-based profits. If governments need to offset the extra cost of truly green power while the economy is transformed from an exploitative to a protective model, so be it.

Wind developers and regulatory agencies have a choice. Either take these emerging issues seriously now and change the way the industry develops, or face inevitable and justified hostility at every turn. Wind developments need to be appropriately scaled and located well away from human habitation.

Everything has limits, even renewable energy developments. Until we learn that lesson, we will continue to make big mistakes.

wind power, wind energy, wind turbines, wind farms, environment, environmentalism