David Suzuki: Supporting wind power makes sense

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      I have a cabin on Quadra Island off the British Columbia coast that’s as close to my heart as you can imagine. From my porch you can see clear across the waters of Georgia Strait to the snowy peaks of the rugged Coast Mountains. It’s one of the most beautiful views I have seen. And I would gladly share it with a wind farm.

      Sometimes it seems I’m in the minority. Across Europe and North America, environmentalists and others are locking horns with the wind industry over farm locations. In Canada, opposition to wind installations has sprung up from Nova Scotia to Ontario to Alberta to B.C. In the U.K., more than 100 national and local groups, led by some of the country's most prominent environmentalists, have argued wind power is inefficient, destroys the ambience of the countryside and makes little difference to carbon emissions. And in the U.S., the Cape Wind Project, which would site 130 turbines off the coast of affluent Cape Cod, Massachusetts, has come under fire from famous liberals, including John Kerry and the late Sen. Edward Kennedy.

      It’s time for some perspective. With the growing urgency of climate change, we can’t have it both ways. We can’t shout about the dangers of global warming and then turn around and shout even louder about the “dangers” of windmills. Climate change is one of the greatest challenges humanity will face this century. Confronting it will take a radical change in the way we produce and consume energyanother industrial revolution, this time for clean energy, conservation, and efficiency.

      We’ve undergone such transformations before and we can again. But we must accept that all forms of energy have associated costs. Fossil fuels are limited in quantity, create vast amounts of pollution and contribute to climate change. Large-scale hydroelectric power floods valleys and destroys habitat. Nuclear power plants are expensive, create radioactive waste and take a long time to build.

      Wind power also has its downsides. It’s highly visible and can kill birds. But any man-made structure (not to mention cars and house cats) can kill birds—houses, radio towers, skyscrapers. In Toronto alone, an estimated one million birds collide with the city's buildings every year. In comparison, the risk to birds from well-sited wind farms is low. Even the U.K.’s Royal Society for the Protection of Birds says scientific evidence shows wind farms “have negligible impacts” on birds when they are appropriately located.

      Improved technologies and more attention to wind farm placement can clearly reduce harm to birds, bats and other wildlife. Indeed, the real risk to flying creatures comes not from windmills but from a changing climate, which threatens the very existence of species and their habitats. Wind farms should always be subject to environmental-impact assessments, but a blanket "not in my backyard" approach is hypocritical and counterproductive.

      Pursuing wind power as part of our move toward clean energy makes sense. Wind power has become the fastest-growing source of energy in the world, employing hundreds of thousands of workers. That’s in part because larger turbines and greater knowledge of how to build, install and operate them has dramatically reduced costs over the past two decades. Prices are now comparable to other forms of power generation and will likely decrease further as technology improves.

      But, are windmills ugly? Mostafa Tolba, executive director of the UN Environment Programme from 1976 to 1992, told me belching smokestacks were considered signs of progress when he was growing up in Egypt. Even as an adult concerned about pollution, it took him a long time to get over the pride he felt when he saw a tower pouring clouds of smoke.

      Our perception of beauty is shaped by our values and beliefs. Some people think wind turbines are ugly. I think smokestacks, smog, acid rain, coal-fired power plants and climate change are ugly. I think windmills are beautiful. They harness the wind’s power to supply us with heat and light. They provide local jobs. They help clean air and reduce climate change.

      And if one day I look out from my cabin porch and see a row of windmills spinning in the distance, I won't curse them. I will praise them. It will mean we’re finally getting somewhere.



      G.R.L. Cowan

      Apr 2, 2014 at 7:40am

      "I *have* a cabin" -- emphasis mine. Those of us who have just one residence, or rent just one, would tend to say "I live in" that residence. It's easy to welcome changes to the environment of a pied-a-terre one is seldom in.

      Suzuki tends to find beautiful anything that tends to preserve government's fossil fuel income. When governments force electrical grid operators to accept wind energy, sometimes hydroelectricity is the backup, and in that case, no foul. But often there isn't a lot of hydroelectricity available, and in that case, natural gas is the backup, and governments then profit because a joule's worth of gas costs a lot more, and so yields more royalty payments, than coal or uranium.

      "Wind power ... can kill birds" -- yes, and it can also kill people , as will become evident to persons googling the headline "Boy, 3, killed by loosened wind turbine".


      Apr 2, 2014 at 9:55am

      Wind Farms are absolutely part of the Solution as are most other alternative Green forms of Energy, we don't have a choice in reality but Politics and NIMBY's get in the way while the World burns.


      Apr 2, 2014 at 12:53pm

      Wind power is inefficient and the detrimental health effects of wind turbines are just beginning to be documented. Two decades ago the detrimental health effects of power transmission lines were just starting to be documented people's concerns were derided by "the experts". Now we know more. The same will be repeated with wind turbines.

      Parker Gallant

      Apr 2, 2014 at 3:26pm

      If the view from his cabin was that depicted at the start of the article Suzuki might not be so happy. I also presume he didn't paddle to Quadra Island to save CO2 emissions and instead took the trip in a boat/ship powered by fossil fuel. If Suzuki truly thought wind turbines are beautiful why isn't his cabin a few hundred feet away from a 500 foot one? Don't you just love hypocrisy?

      Richard Mann

      Apr 2, 2014 at 4:57pm

      Wind proponents still have not addressed the health impacts:

      *Canadian Family Physician (2013) "Adverse health effects of industrial wind turbines",
      *British Medical Journal (2012). "Wind turbine noise".
      *Canadian Journal of Rural Medicine (2014). "Industrial wind turbines and adverse health effects".

      Our government (Environment, Health, and Energy ministries) are ignoring this evidence.

      Lawyers call this “Willful Blindness”.

      Def'n (Wikipedia) Willful blindness (sometimes called ignorance of law, willful ignorance or contrived ignorance or Nelsonian knowledge) is a term used in law to describe a situation where an individual seeks to avoid civil or criminal liability for a wrongful act by intentionally putting himself in a position where he will be unaware of facts that would render him liable.

      Alastair Leith

      Apr 2, 2014 at 6:20pm

      On the scale of threats to small boys, wind farms would have to be the lowest ranking technology ever devised by man. As to birds, one concerned farmer had orthologists do surveys on his property which had wind turbine towers located on it over a ten year period and they found just as many dead animals and birds on his roads nowhere miles away from the towers as adjacent to his tower. The conclusion of the ornithologists was no discernible impact.

      As to the claimed "health impacts" in Australia we have seen more government enquiries in health impacts of wind turbines than into coal and gas related health impacts. There is zero scientific evidence of "health impacts" from wind turbines" and an overwhelming amount of evidence of health impacts from coal and gas mining. Coal alone estimated by Harvard Medical School to have an annual impact of 5 Billion US$ in USA and 500 million A$in Australia. Australian Medical Association just found no health impact of wind turbines in a recent review of the science. It's worth noting the "nocebo" effect of anti-wind campaigners like Sarah Laurie going into an area and creating an atmosphere of anxiety and fear which may lead to some of symptoms from the vast array of symptoms anti-wind campaigners claim against wind turbines.


      Apr 3, 2014 at 12:51am

      That's the picture you use for this article about wind turbines? Forty year old bird chopper's? If BC is to really harness the power of wind machines of the highest quality are in order. Those machines are scrap metal. Even the machine on Grouse Mtn. is better used for a viewing tower for tourists. Modern tower's are pushing heights over 80m (and some are higher then 150m) which helps to reduce impact on birds and bats. Direct drive turbines like those in Dawson Creek at Bear Mtn. don't require gear boxes (and their many, many rotating parts) increasing they're availability to produce power to over 97% of the time. (Most of the three percent is scheduled maintenance) And the argument for negative health effects caused by these machines are silly. These are industrial power plants, they don't belong in someone's backyard and setbacks should be measured in kilometers. BC is a big place, I'm sure there's a windy spot without anyone around somewhere within it's borders.

      Dan Scharf

      Apr 3, 2014 at 5:15am

      Really interesting spread of comments here.
      A mix of anecdotal stories - examples which are, of course, not necessarily indicative of overall risks
      i.e. 3 yr old boy killed by a blade of a small turbine. Wind turbines don't kill a lot of people - mostly workers who fall, are electrocuted, or burned alive in the nacelle - the industry runs conferences on how to improve workplace safety but doesn't ever publish any statistics unlike the Nuclear Power industry. There are far more deaths from falls resulting from DIY Rooftop Solar installations. Of course, Nuclear Power Plants don't kill people either - especially our Candu reactors.
      Marginalization … use of the term "NIMBY" - an epithet used by Dalton McGuinty in the very first press conference announcing the Green Energy Act (How's that working for you now, Dalton?)
      Relating WIND as a replacement of Coal (How's that working for you Germany?). It appears that after 25 years Wind hasn't replaced a single coal plant anywhere in the world. Wind appears to be increasing demand for coal generation in Germany and China.
      Continual references to the same government literature reviews, all done in collusion with the Wind Associations which all review the same handful of "studies". Total number of residents medically examined or even interviewed in all such reviews = zero. Hard to find 'evidence' of correlation let alone causation if you don't actually even speak to the reported cases.
      Misunderstanding such as the height of Wind Tower somehow protects birds and bats. Towers are higher so that the surface area covered by the blades are larger thereby increasing nameplate capacity. When Wind Towers are placed in close proximity to protected species or in migrations paths, they die. When there's a lot of towers, more die. Towers are very efficient at sweeping areas clear of bats. Even the Wind Industry is worried about that - they just don't like to talk about it. They hope radar will reduce bat deaths.
      Use of erroneous statistics - 97% availability? Wind Towers are NOT operational 97% of the time and when measured against expected lifetime the number drops well below other power generation techniques. But clearly even when operating, output varies from 0% of nameplate capacity to 100% - the output histogram varies a lot but think 20-30% of nameplate. That sucks compared to every other form of generation.

      Dan Scharf

      Apr 3, 2014 at 5:25am

      And James… pragmatic view "these are industrial power plants"… so yes, if some jurisdiction actually NEEDS Wind Power AND cost benefit indicates that they are the best solution AND they actually displace some old residual coal generation then put them where there is minimal impact - away from people, away from important birds and bats, and where there will be minimal environmental impact. Clearly - NOT the approach used in Ontario. We already had 80% emission-free generation, improving air quality, and were already replacing the remaining coal generation with gas. Near zero benefit from Wind at great cost.

      Keith Murphy

      Apr 3, 2014 at 5:51am

      I believe the two strongest arguments against Industrial Wind Power are 1) don't build them where people live and 2) do not subsidize the industry with taxpayer dollars.
      As we know our nation is truly massive geographically and there are plenty of isolated areas with no population where these structures could be built. The Ontario Green Energy Act is nothing more than a scam meant to suck away tax dollars from Ontario's taxpayers and into the coffers of a very select few. Rectify these two arguments and I'm wholeheartedly willing to support wind energy.