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Wind turbines near Grand Valley, Ont.

Glenn Lowson/The Globe and Mail

Renewable energy developers – and those who regulate them – need to be more sensitive to the concerns of residents who are going to have massive wind turbines built near them, a group of Canadian academics says.

In a paper published Monday in the journal Nature Energy, the eight authors – six of whom are university professors or researchers – analyze why there is so much debate over the placement of wind turbines in Ontario.

Ontario has the greatest number of wind turbines of any province, and their construction has created considerable conflict between developers and those opposed to the installation of large industrial machinery in rural environments. Often these fights end up pitting neighbours against neighbours, and they can become big political battles at the municipal level.

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Ontario has altered its rules since it first encouraged wind farms in its Green Energy Act in 2009, said Stewart Fast, a senior research associate at the University of Ottawa and one of the paper's authors. But even though the new rules encourage more input from local governments and residents near proposed turbines, these changes haven't been enough to stop the disputes, he said.

One of the key battlegrounds concerns the health effects of wind turbines, and whether the noise and vibration from them keep some people awake and cause other medical issues.

Wind proponents have pointed out that there is little evidence of a direct link between turbine noise and health, and "those living close to turbines who express health concerns are sometimes mocked in their communities," the paper notes. But it also suggests there needs to be a "broader view of the health impacts caused by wind energy" among developers and regulators.

"There is a psycho-social stress that is involved," Mr. Fast said. "Being dismissive and characterizing annoyance as something that doesn't matter is not going to be helpful."

One reason for community conflict with wind farms is the uneven way financial benefits are distributed. Municipalities sometimes receive "contributions" from developers, but "in polarized situations such arrangements can be interpreted as a bribe," the paper notes. Usually the only individuals who gain financially are those who lease space for a turbine on their land – although there has been a shift, in some situations, to also compensate others who live nearby.

The best solution, the paper suggests, is a local-ownership model where members of the community can actually own a project, reap its benefits, and influence how it is built. That is much more common in Europe than in North America.

Even if that doesn't happen, there needs to be a more complete process of community engagement, with better and more open public meetings, more willingness by developers to change projects, and a process for mediation and negotiation, the paper said.

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The aesthetics of wind farms has also been a divisive issue . Some people who live near them like the way they look and think of them as part of the green energy revolution, while others hate them and see them as an industrial intrusion.

But even if a local landscape is widely considered part of an area's "cultural heritage," the impact of a wind farm is usually dealt with in a "perfunctory manner," or "simply ignored" by developers, the paper said.

Rules that protect already-designated sensitive landscapes need to be enforced, Mr. Fast said, and there needs to be some kind of formal process for identifying those valuable cultural landscapes in the first place.

This kind of process works in other sectors such as forestry, where clear-cutting is usually forbidden near roads or waterways, Mr. Fast noted. "I don't think it is an unreasonable idea that those same kind of restrictions apply to energy development."

Over all, he said, wind energy regulation has, up to this point, generally favoured developers over those who oppose turbines. However, "there is a trend to take a little bit more seriously the concerns of [opponents] and the need for early engagement [of those affected]," he added.

Mr. Fast said he thinks more wind projects should simply be put to a vote. "The idea of some sort of community referendum on whether or not the municipality should support a project is probably a good thing."

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