The Ontario government has called a stop to any offshore wind power projects in the province's portion of the Great Lakes, until further scientific study is done.
In an announcement that stunned both wind power supporters and opponents, the province – which has strongly supported a shift to renewable sources of power – said Friday that it will not proceed with any offshore wind projects "while further research is conducted."
No offshore wind projects had yet received full approvals, but several were in the planning stages and one had already received a contract to sell electricity to the province under the "feed-in-tariff" program that pays high prices for renewable power. That contract will be cancelled, applications will be suspended and no more will be accepted, the province said.
Some of the proposed projects, including one in Lake Ontario just off the Toronto suburb of Scarborough, and another near Kingston, had raised the ire of local residents who did not want their view of the lake interrupted by a string of wind turbines.
The government noted that producing power from offshore wind farms in freshwater lakes is early in the development stages, and there are no projects operating yet in North America. There is one in place in Sweden, and a pilot project has been proposed in Ohio, it said.
"We will be working with our U.S. neighbours to ensure that any offshore wind projects are protective of the environment," Ontario Environment Minister John Wilkinson said in a statement. "Offshore wind on freshwater lakes is a recent concept that requires a cautious approach until the science of environmental impact is clear. In contrast, the science concerning land-based wind is extensive."
Ontario currently generates about 1,500 megawatts of power from land-based wind farms.
The province halted offshore wind projects once in the past. In 2006 it put a moratorium on any offshore development while it examined environmental issues, but it was removed early in 2008.
There are already hundreds of offshore wind farms in place in ocean waters, mainly off the coasts of European countries
The wind industry was taken aback by Friday's announcement.
"It is an unfortunate decision because Ontario has been working to position itself as a leader in this sector," said Robert Hornung, president of the Canadian Wind Energy Association, which represents developers and wind hardware manufacturers. The decision obviously creates uncertainty for the industry, he said, although he expressed hope that it represents merely a "pause" in development. CANWEA will try to help the government conduct its research, he added.
Wind power opponents said Ontario's decision shows there are real environmental concerns about turbines, although they would have liked to see a stop to land-based development as well.
"It is a victory and it validates our position," said John Laforet, president of the lobby group Wind Concerns Ontario. Government officials in the past characterized his group's opposition to offshore turbines as "absurd," he said. "This demonstrates they don't know what they are doing and they are scared [of the political fallout], which they should be. They understand they have a political problem and the science is not on their side."
The Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment, a group that has supported wind power and other renewables, said it was disappointed with the decision but is "heartened" by the fact that the province is still committed to eliminating coal-fired power plants.
The Society for Wind Vigilance, which wants far more study on the health impacts of land-based turbines, said it would like a moratorium on all industrial wind developments. "The Ontario government admitted on Friday that more scientific research needs to be done before proceeding with industrial wind turbines in the Great Lakes and other freshwater bodies," said spokeswoman Beth Harrington. "What is clear from our research of industrial wind development on land is that not nearly enough research has been done to protect human health."
Ontario's opposition energy critic, John Yakabuski, called the government's move "a spectacular backtrack." He said the Liberal's green energy plan has been "oversold from the start" and it was "never properly planned."
The Conservative party feels there is no need for offshore wind farms, Mr. Yakabuski said. Other forms of renewable energy "must be a rates that families and small businesses can afford and [projects] must be in communities that welcome it."