On the morning of Jan. 5, workers with a fleet of heavy equipment mounted a stealth assault on a bald eagle's nest near the shore of Lake Erie. Their mission was to remove the nest – one of only a few dozen bald eagle nests in Southern Ontario – to make way for an access road to the site of a new industrial wind turbine. As a pair of eagles looked on from a nearby tree, the workers sawed off the limb with the giant nest and took it away to parts unknown.
Ontario's environmental regulations would usually make this illegal. But the wind company, NextEra Energy, one of the biggest operators in the province, had obtained special dispensation.
Wind power is supposed to be environmentally friendly. But a lot of environmentalists don't think so. "People couldn't believe it happened," says Scott Petrie, a waterfowl ecologist and executive director of Long Point Waterfowl, a conservation group. "Cutting down bald eagle nests flies in the face of anything you would call green energy."
Wind turbines have invaded many of Ontario's most scenic and ecologically rich areas. They're invading coastal wetlands and spreading along major migratory flyways – up the Bruce Peninsula, west to Lake Huron, south to Lake Erie, and east to Prince Edward County, where environmental groups are fighting a major wind development in Ostrander Point, an important bird area. "We have no idea whatsoever of the cumulative impact of these things," says Dr. Petrie. Turbines chew up birds and other flying things, and they disrupt wildlife habitats.
But, in Ontario, nothing is allowed to trump Big Wind. Ontario's Green Energy Act, the brainchild of outgoing Premier Dalton McGuinty, gave the green light to rampant wind development. By 2016, the goal is to more than double the amount of wind power being generated now.
Wind companies are not owned and operated by idealistic entrepreneurs. They are run by some of Canada's, and the world's, biggest corporations, including pipeline and pulp and paper companies. Wind contracts are flipped like other financial instruments. NextEra, the outfit that cut down the eagle's nest, is the largest generator of wind and solar power in North America. Because of a lucrative U.S. tax break for wind power, the company has paid no U.S. corporate income tax for several years, despite billions in profits. Big Wind is among the biggest lobbyists in Washington.
Dalton McGuinty's Green Energy Act was a spectacular policy blunder, based on a string of faulty premises: that coal emissions were killing us (they weren't), that we'd soon be running out of fossil fuel (we aren't, and Ontario doesn't use much anyway), and that switching to green energy would help save the planet (not in our lifetime). As the price of fossil fuels went up and up, the reasoning went, renewables would become more and more competitive. Just one problem: The price of fossil fuels has plummeted.
In order to promote green energy, governments around the world have handed out billions in the form of subsidies and fixed long-term contracts. A very generous Ontario became an international magnet for wind and solar companies. The money was guaranteed, and the approval process was easy.
Today, the wind power generated in Ontario is both expensive and useless. The province actually pays hundreds of millions of dollars to other jurisdictions to take surplus power off its hands. Energy-intensive companies are leaving because their hydro bills are too high. And taxpayers are stuck with 20-year contracts that will add billions to their hydro bills (and/or the provincial deficit). For the record, Ontario's incoming premier, Kathleen Wynne, is a big fan of these arrangements. But even a saner government wouldn't be able to undo them.
Meantime, the wind juggernaut rolls on. "It's ripping communities apart," says Heather Sprott, whose family owns a 300-acre farm near the Niagara Escarpment. Farmers in the area have been offered as much as $20,000 a year for each turbine they allow on their land, meaning they could reap $60,000 or $80,000 a year by harvesting the wind. "That's a lot of money for a farmer," she says. But she's not tempted. She loves the views, and worries about potential health effects.
In Britain, the tide is turning against wind power. The U.K. has 3,000 onshore turbines, with another 6,000 in the works. Big Wind's opponents include prominent environmentalists such as James Lovelock, best known for the Gaia theory, which theorizes that the biosphere is a self-regulating entity. Mr. Lovelock is trying to stop a 20-storey wind turbine planned for his neighbourhood. In his protest letter, he writes: "We never intended a fundamentalist Green movement that rejected all energy sources other than renewable, nor did we expect the Greens to cast aside our priceless ecological heritage because of their failure to understand that the needs of the Earth are not separable from human needs. We need to take care that the spinning windmills do not become like the statues on Easter Island, monuments of a failed civilization."
Every premier wants to leave a legacy, and Mr. McGuinty has left his – giant wind turbines stretching as far as the eye can see. And a pair of bald eagles searching for their lost nest.