Wind power is already an important component of Canada's energy mix, and it will become a more significant source of electricity in the years to come as the pressure builds to shift to clean, renewable power. But wind is not simply benign, and the potential impacts of wind turbines on the environment, the landscape and people's health need more attention.
There is no question that wind turbines have many positive attributes. They generate electricity without producing greenhouse-gas emissions and they consume no costly fuel. And they can be assembled quickly and inexpensively compared with many other energy sources such as nuclear plants or hydroelectric dams. But they are also industrial facilities, and most often are installed in rural areas that do not have other large mechanical objects on the horizon.
As a result, there is controversy when wind farms are first proposed. In some cases the debate over wind power has split rural communities and caused intensely bad feelings among neighbours. The lines are drawn between those who will collect rental payments for leasing their land to wind developers, and those who will get nothing but must look at the looming turbines day after day. Municipalities are having a tough time keeping some control. In Alberta, a wind developer threatened a legal challenge when the Pincher Creek municipal district council tried to put some limits on wind farms in the area. In Ontario, the province's new Green Energy Act makes it easier, and faster, to build wind farms with little input from municipal governments.
There are many legitimate concerns about the impact of turbines on the environment. Some opponents claim the landscape is spoiled, others say property values are reduced, and some are concerned about the impact on birds and bats. Prince Edward Island was wise to tighten up its environmental impact guidelines recently, to make sure that the public is properly notified of wind projects and that transmission lines leading to them get sufficient study.
A further divisive issue is whether there are negative health impacts from living near turbines. The wind industry vehemently rejects claims that turbines can cause health problems. A recent survey, sponsored by wind energy associations in Canada and the United States, found there is no proven direct correlation between the sounds made by turbines and adverse health effects. But the study did no original research of its own, and it did acknowledge that turbines can be annoying, and that annoyance can lead to stress and disturbed sleep.
This is an area that needs far more study. There are hundreds of people around the world who report severe health problems that they relate directly to the presence of nearby turbines. It is not good enough to reject them all as cranks, and ignore their concerns.
Serious research into the health concerns surrounding wind turbines, and proper environmental assessment, are needed before the machinery now dotting the landscape in many provinces becomes even more ubiquitous.