Wind's PR problem

Toronto Star: August 3, 2010

A year into the provincial government's efforts to drive investment in green energy, the wind industry commissioned a poll to determine Ontarians' attitudes toward wind turbines.

The results of the poll, conducted by Ipsos Reid and released last month, showed that nearly nine in every 10 Ontarians either "somewhat support" or "strongly support" the production of wind energy. This was seen by the wind industry as encouraging news. Robert Hornung, president of the (») Canadian Wind Energy Association ENDsaid the results "clearly indicate that wind energy enjoys broad support across the province, regardless of where residents live."

Not exactly. The results in southwestern Ontario - where the majority of wind turbines are currently clustered - were not so encouraging. There was markedly less support for wind turbines in this region than everywhere else in Ontario. According to the poll, 35 per cent of respondents in southwestern Ontario strongly support the production of wind energy in their local community compared to 44-to-50 per cent elsewhere. Similarly, the poll found that 13 per cent of southwestern Ontarians mentioned health concerns as a main drawback of wind power, compared to only 5-to-7 per cent in all the other regions.

These results should concern not only the wind industry but also the provincial government, which has planned a major role for wind power and other renewable forms of energy both in keeping the lights on and in creating "green" jobs. For the results suggest that, the closer the wind turbines are to your backyard, the more likely you are to be concerned about their impact on your health.

There is no scientific evidence to support claims that turbines make people sick. Dr. Arlene King, Ontario's chief medical officer of health, was unequivocal on this point in a report earlier this year. "There isn't any direct causal link between wind turbine noise and adverse health effects," she said.

Such statements have had little effect on the opponents of wind turbines, who note that the tobacco industry used to say the same thing about smoking and lung cancer.

To help dispel the health fears being generated by a small but vocal group of wind critics, the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment and the Registered Nurses' Association of Ontario have joined forces. The doctors and nurses are meeting with MPPs and others to ensure them that the medical community at large supports wind as a safe form of energy - unlike coal-fired power plants, which can be directly linked to respiratory illnesses and deaths.

The government is funding a five-year, independent research chair to study the potential health effects of the renewable energy project. Its initial focus will be on wind turbines.

These are important steps. For wind projects to play a significant role in our energy future, they need the backing and confidence of Ontarians.