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It was an overcast day for the opening of a 44-turbine wind farm near Port Alma, Ontario, near the shores of Lake Erie Thursday, Nov. 13, 2008. (DAVE CHIDLEY/Dave Chidley/The Canadian Press)
It was an overcast day for the opening of a 44-turbine wind farm near Port Alma, Ontario, near the shores of Lake Erie Thursday, Nov. 13, 2008. (DAVE CHIDLEY/Dave Chidley/The Canadian Press)

Test Drive Ontario

An ill wind on Lake Erie Add to ...

When Dalton McGuinty visited The Globe and Mail's editorial board earlier this year, one topic seemed to catch him off guard.

How, the Ontario Premier was asked, could his government be considering putting wind turbines off the shores of Point Pelee, in Lake Erie's Pigeon Bay? As one of the most ecologically sensitive corners of the province, wasn't it the sort of place that should be deemed off limits for energy development?

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After broadly extolling the virtues of his Green Energy Act, Mr. McGuinty stumbled through an acknowledgment that he hadn't really given this specific issue much consideration. "You've raised something which I've not thought about," he said. "I'm glad you're not in opposition."

It was a strange thing for the Premier to say, even taking into account the number of files that cross his desk. The proposal for Point Pelee raised the ire of everyone from deep-pocketed residents to local mayors to Margaret Atwood. Only a few weeks after his Globe visit, a pair of Mr. McGuinty's own MPPs - Bruce Crozier and Pat Hoy - publicly came out against their own government's handling of the issue.

Point Peelee

But Mr. McGuinty's answer to the editorial board epitomized one of the biggest flaws in his party's plans to attract wind energy development. Conceived in haste, with the aim of creating jobs and power as quickly as possible, the Liberal strategy was written too broadly to fully distinguish between good projects and bad ones.

In Point Pelee, a solution has come too late to avoid generating an avoidable degree of angst about green energy in general. And the solution itself is broad enough to have consequences elsewhere.

A RIPPLE EFFECT

Compared to other areas of the province, such as Prince Edward County, the Essex region is not a hotbed for the not-in-my-backyard sentiments that Mr. McGuinty has identified as a barrier to spreading wind turbines across the land.

A fruit basket at the southernmost tip of Canada - the town of Leamington is the country's "tomato capital" - it seems to have been predisposed to welcome the hundreds of windmills that have popped up on local farms or are in development. While a few people on neighbouring properties aren't happy, there has been little organized opposition to land turbines.

A drive through the region, however, quickly shows that the proposal to put as many as 150 turbines in the bay has struck a nerve.

"No wind turbines in our lake" signs dot the lawns of properties around Leamington and the neighbouring town of Kingsville - not just on the shoreline properties, but farther inland as well. In conversation, everyone seems to be aware of the issue.

Jim Krushelniski, who leads the protest group that distributes the signs, insists his opposition has nothing to do with NIMBYism. This is a slightly dubious claim, coming as it does while Mr. Krushelniski - a former Heinz executive - sits in the office of a luxury home that looks out on the lake. It's hard to believe that the prospect of wind turbines spoiling his magnificent view hasn't crossed his mind.

Nevertheless, he's able to rhyme off a list of other concerns, including the potential impacts on drinking water and commercial fishing. The one that seems to have gotten the most traction is the effect on bird and bat migration - a major tourist attraction for Point Pelee, which sees more than 300 bird species pass through in the spring. (That's also what's attracted the attention of Ms. Atwood, a noted bird enthusiast with a home on Pelee Island, the popular destination about 18 kilometres from shore.) Given the tendency of turbines to make mincemeat of things airborne, it doesn't require great imagination to figure out what would happen.

Fuelling the various worries is the fact that this is uncharted territory. Although there are several other proposals to build wind farms in the Great Lakes, on both sides of the border, none have actually been built. So it's hard to know what exactly the environmental impact will be. And Essex, a place with a relatively dense population and a strong tourist industry, is a questionable place to test it out.

Indeed, very few people seem to think it's a good idea to put wind turbines in Pigeon Bay. But there's one notable exception: the people who want to build them.

SouthPoint Wind embodies the risks of unleashing a gold rush by offering premium prices for green energy, as Ontario has done. The company is run by a local housing developer and is viewed with considerable skepticism by more established developers - some of whom looked at Point Pelee and decided it wasn't suitable for development.

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