Turbine rules may foil wind ventures

Dozens of projects, billions in investment at risk, energy group says Tyler Hamilton - July 15, 2009

A majority of "construction ready" wind projects in Ontario won't go forward if the province passes regulations that keep wind turbines a minimum distance from residences, roads and railway lines, warns Canada's wind energy association.

Association president Robert Hornung, in a lengthy letter to Environment Minister John Gerretsen, said more than three-quarters of 103 advanced-stage wind projects will likely be affected if the new rules are enacted.

"The net effect is that 79 construction-ready projects representing 2,591 megawatts would either be rendered immediately non-viable or would require a complete `back to the drawing board' redesign," wrote Hornung.

The Canadian Wind Energy Association is concerned specifically about two proposed rules, one that would require turbines to be a minimum of 550 metres away from residences, and the other requiring turbines to be 120 metres or more away from roads, railway lines, and property lot lines.

Both rules were designed to satisfy health and safety concerns while creating a provincial standard that replaces a patchwork of municipal bylaws. Wind turbines emit noise, and some rural residents have complained that the massive machines are disrupting sleep and making people sick.

After surveying 25 wind developers in the province to assess the impact of the proposed rules, the wind association found that hundreds of wind turbines sited under current plans would automatically be in breach of the new regulations, putting dozens of projects and billions of dollars of investment at risk.

"The end result of these two setbacks is that significant portions of the province will effectively be `sterilized' from wind energy development," wrote Hornung, lamenting that the proposed rules are arbitrary and not based on science or good public policy.

But Jane Pepino, a lawyer and social activist with citizen watchdog Conserve Our Rural Environment, said the proposed minimums are appropriate to reduce the nuisance and resulting stresses that can, for some, lead to health problems.

"I certainly don't think the government should back down," Pepino said.

"For the wind industry to say it will slow down construction-ready projects, well, maybe before they were getting away with a little bit too much?"

Dr. David Colby, acting medical officer of health in Chatham-Kent, doesn't share that view. He said the 550-metre setback from residences makes no sense when the government only imposes a setback of 50 metres for highways, which are arguably much louder and more disruptive.

He called the proposed setbacks for the wind industry "unnecessarily conservative" and out of touch with the latest technologies and standards.

"Let's face it, wind turbine designs are improving all the time, getting quieter and quieter," he said.

Colby said that the province should stick with the Ministry of Environment's 2008 guidelines, which established setbacks based on noise levels that surpass 40 decibels. The wind association is making the same recommendation, among others.

"Setbacks on sound should be based on sound, and setbacks on safety should be based on safety, not arbitrary distances," said Sean Whittaker, the association's vice-president of policy.

He said that moving ahead with the proposed rules would undermine the potential of the province's new Green Energy and Green Economy Act, which was designed to encourage the development of renewable power.

"We feel we're putting forward a very solid case," Whittaker said.