No time for NIMBYism, wind power is needed now

The Toronto Star: Marilyn Churley - February 12, 2009

Misleading, outdated information about wind turbines is causing unnecessary alarm

After decades on the outside fighting to get in, environmental activists are finally in a position to make things happen.

I watched Barack Obama's inaugural address on a big-screen TV at Queen's Park with members of the Green Energy Act Alliance, a coalition of environmental, farming, community and native groups. We all cheered when Obama talked about renewable energy and the new economy.

Since then, the new president has kept his word and allocated hundreds of billions of dollars for clean power and public transportation while placing key scientists and policy-makers in cabinet to support his new initiatives.

Toronto and other cities have also been leading the way for years. As a city councillor in the late 1980s, I am proud to have introduced the Energy Efficiency Office at city hall and helped in the creation of the Toronto Atmospheric Fund. More recently, under the leadership of Mayor David Miller, the city has set aggressive targets for greenhouse gas emissions.

At the provincial level, Minister of Energy and Infrastructure George Smitherman recently announced the signing of long-term contracts for six new wind energy projects. And Premier Dalton McGuinty has announced his government's plans for a new Green Energy Act, advocated by the Green Energy Act Alliance, which will include a streamlined regulatory and approvals process for green energy projects.

Significantly, McGuinty announced in a speech earlier in the week that "NIMBYism will no longer prevail," in response to local opposition to wind farms based on a range of concerns. Opponents fear large wind turbines will kill birds, destroy beautiful views, have some, as yet unspecified, health effects, and lower property values.

Perhaps the most infamous case of NIMBYism is well-known environmentalist Bobby Kennedy Jr.'s fight against an offshore wind farm proposed near the Kennedy family cottage in Cape Cod, Mass. (For the record, after an eight-year battle, the project was approved after exhaustive environmental and economic studies showed negligible impacts.)

In Ontario, a new province-wide group has emerged to fight wind turbine production in large parts of rural Ontario. In Scarborough, a community group is up in arms over the mere placement of a wind research platform offshore in Lake Ontario to measure the wind resource for possible future wind generation.

I'm all for citizen involvement – having been a community environmental activist for years – but let's get some perspective here. Study after study demonstrates that the trigger point for severe climate change is closer than previously thought, and the consequences even more dire. To put a fine point on it, we need action now.

Studies conclude that by 2030 renewable energy could provide up to one-third of all global power, and energy efficiency and conservation could reduce greenhouse gases by more than 25 per cent.

Just to slow the pace sufficiently to avoid some of the certain catastrophic results demands that we do it all and do it now. Scientists say delays in significant action would mean failing to contain global warming to less than 2 degrees Celsius, which is the level they say must be met to prevent its most severe impacts. If that happens, all bets are off.

Wind power is a critical part of the mix as it's the fastest growing source of electric generation around the world.

I am not saying that every proposed site is going to be appropriate and I am not reducing all opposition to NIMBYism, but there is plenty of misleading and outdated information being used that is causing unnecessary alarm (for instance, the design of modern turbines has greatly reduced danger to birds). So yes, of course, there must be a transparent and robust environmental assessment process that examines all aspects of a proposed siting with real input from affected communities.

We just don't have the luxury of stringing out alternative energy project processes for years. We need solutions now.

Global climate change is having environmental impacts that make short-term concerns about wind turbines pale in comparison. We need these projects and we are going to need a lot more like them if we are to wean ourselves off fossil fuel energy.

Better to take appropriate steps now than have birds dying in their nests and whole species and ecosystems disappearing – which, by the way, is already starting to happen. And while changing our light bulbs and taking public transportation are part of the solution, they are not going to get coal plants shut down.

The Kyoto Protocol agreement on climate change ends in 2012 and we are not even close to meeting our targets. Governments are preparing for the next phase and will meet in Copenhagen in December 2009 to sign a new agreement. Ontario has a chance to be a leader in Canada and the world.

So I say urgently to my friends who care about the environment and future generations, we cannot be split on this issue. We want coal plants closed, no new nuclear or gas plants and we hate the dirty Alberta tar sands. We are going to be laughed out of town if we don't fully and aggressively support all forms of renewable power – including wind power.

Ontario has the chance to seriously tackle climate change, shut down its coal plants and, as a very important added benefit these days, stay competitive with the United States under a pro-green Obama administration.

We can be world leaders, build the technology here, employ thousands of Ontarians and save our planet all at the same time.

Let's not blow it.

Marilyn Churley is a former Ontario NDP cabinet minister, Toronto city councillor and co-founder of Citizens for a Safe Environment

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