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Wind turbines in the Alberta foothills west of Pincher Creek.Norm Betts

This is part of an eight-week series on clean energy.

Controversy that has marked Ontario's rapid growth in wind power has been largely absent in Alberta, where the industry has operated for two decades and now has the third-largest installed generation capacity of the green energy source in Canada.

Wind farm operators in the Western province have had to work to solve environmental problems, notably bat and bird deaths, which have led to operational changes at some developments.

But public complaints about facilities, which are concentrated in the breezy and sparsely populated southern part of the province best known for fossil-fuel development, are almost non-existent, according to recent research into what is seen as one of the most commercially viable forms of alternative energy.

That is in sharp contrast to Ontario, where groups have been established to oppose wind power and publicize potential human-health effects of facilities near homes. Government policies there aimed at promoting green energy have led to brisk activity in wind farm construction.

"We're not seeing the same type of organized push-back in Alberta," said Tim Weis, director of renewable energy and efficiency policy for the Pembina Institute, a non-profit environmental think tank.

Some of the wind farms in Alberta, especially in the southwest, are relatively close to population centres. Public attitudes may be more accepting because many Albertans already have experience living close to conventional energy facilities, Mr. Weis said. In addition, virtually all commercial wind developments in the province are on privately owned land.

Mr. Weis contributed to a Pembina study this summer that found the Alberta Utilities Commission, the provincial regulator governing commercial-scale wind farms, has not received a single complaint related to the facilities since 2000 in 31,000 "contacts" with the public. Wind farm operators reported 10 complaints. By contrast, the oil-and-gas regulator has fielded more than 200 complaints per year about fossil-fuel operations affecting residents.

The contrast compared with Ontario has been somewhat of a puzzle to the industry. Unlike Ontario, which has developed long-term contracts at subsidized terms to promote development, Alberta has stuck with a market-driven model, which some say has tempered construction of new wind farms. It has also mostly kept political controversy at bay.

Human-health impacts from wind power are still being analyzed. Last year, Health Canada and Statistics Canada began a study of the impact of low-frequency wind turbine noise on things such as sleep and blood pressure for people living near facilities. Results are due next year.

A paper published in the Journal of the College of Family Physicians of Canada in May said doctors can expect to see increasing numbers of adverse effects among patients as new facilities are built, including "annoyance, stress, sleep disturbance, headache, anxiety, depression and cognitive dysfunction," as possible symptoms of wind turbine noise, ground current and the flicker of light from spinning turbines.

The paper, authored by a team led by Ontario doctor Roy Jeffery, urged physicians to be aware of the potential link and to contribute to clinical studies as a way to influence regulation.

"There are all manner of concerns about wind turbines. We're not hearing that in Alberta. We've had two requests for information on what might be perceived as human-health effects and what the studies have been to date," said Jay Shukin, public consultation manager for Capital Power Corp. The Edmonton-based company operates wind farms in Alberta, Ontario and British Columbia. Its newest is the 150-megawatt Halkirk facility in central Alberta, the province's largest, which began operation last year.

At 1,117 megawatts, Alberta's total wind power capacity ranks behind Ontario and Quebec, according to the Canadian Wind Energy Association. Wind accounts for 8 per cent of the province's generating capacity, compared with 41 per cent each for coal and natural gas-fired generation, provincial statistics show.

Quebec's wind power industry has also largely avoided widespread opposition to developments, though there have been pockets of resistance in some regions, such as the Gaspé area. However, TransAlta Corp. opened its 68-megawatt New Richmond wind farm there this year and spokeswoman Stacey Hatcher said the community has been supportive.

By regulation, Alberta operators must monitor the impact of their projects on wildlife as well as humans following the startup of projects. They have not been without problems. TransAlta found high numbers of bat deaths at its Summerview wind farm in southwestern Alberta in the past decade, and engaged researchers at the University of Calgary for a two-year study to find a solution.

They studied 188 hoary and silver-haired bats. They found that the bats did not die from external injuries caused by hitting the turbine blades, but from severe lung damage caused by a drop in air pressure near the equipment, a condition known as barotrauma. The problem occurred at low wind speeds, when blades began turning to generate power.

TransAlta has reduced mortality by increasing the "cut-in" wind velocity at which the turbines begin operation, a move that has reduced revenues by a small margin but has cut bat deaths at the site by 60 per cent.

"We know bats don't fly in high winds because they are not very strong fliers, so if you don't have the turbines spinning at the low wind speeds, and only kick in when the winds get higher, you're basically not turning the blades when the bats are in the area," said Mike Peckford, environmental specialist at TransAlta, Alberta's largest wind-power developer with 11 projects in operation.

Mr. Weis at the Pembina Institute said wind power could play a much larger role in the Alberta energy mix, as existing coal-fired stations are phased out in the next 20 to 40 years. However, the industry would require a new system of long-term contracts or incentives, perhaps tied to cuts in carbon. "Wind has a huge opportunity to produce significant amounts of energy and reduce emissions, but in the current market, I think it's going to be difficult for that to happen," he said.

Follow Jeffrey Jones on Twitter: @the_Jeff_JonesOpens in a new window

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