Great Lakes, Great Stakes! Part 2. Tilting at wind turbines.

11 05 2011

Lake Ontario is a beleaguered Great Lake. Millions of Americans and Canadians live around the lake and countless others depend on the Lake Ontario watershed for water, fish, transport and shipping. It is inevitable that harmful impacts will arise from all those people relying on the lake’s resources.  But, is it also possible to generate postive impacts?

TransAlta claims so.  They have built one of the largest wind farms in Ontario and are leading the forefront of the so-called, “green energy” industrial development in North America.  The wind farm is on the truly buccolic Wolfe Island, just a short ferry ride from the City of Kingston.

Wolfe Island wind turbines from air

Wolfe Island wind turbines from air

The area around Kingston is one of the windiest in Canada, making it a freshwater sailing mecca, and the host of many sailing  regattas and championships. As students at Queen’s University know, wind and kite surfers are a common sight along the shoreline. To take advantage of this energy bounty, TransAlta’s wind turbines, 86 of them, covers the entire island from head to foot, the description locals fondly use for the western and eastern tips. Every turbine, standing a gargantuan 80 meters tall (24 stories), is located on private land with TransAlta paying a generous fee to the land owner. Many farmers have found the turbines to be a significant boost, allowing them to expand their businesses and produce for local markets. However, many residents find the turbines to be ugly, noisy and harmful to the peace of their cherished island.

The IJNR fellows had happened to arrive on Wolfe Island on an important day.  Wednesday May 5 marked the beginning of  a tax-assessment hearing on the impact of wind turbines on property values.  As the Kingston Whig-Standard reported, Wolfe islanders were arguing that the wind turbines had lowered property values on the island.  Other opponents of wind farm developments elsewhere on Lake Ontario had come specifically to sit in the hearing.  As a result, the IJNR had to tread carefully and sensitively to avoid the impression of bias towards any group on the island.

An IJNR fellow photographing a wind turbine tower

An IJNR fellow photographing a wind turbine tower

We toured the island to see the wind turbines up close. They truly tower over the entire island which otherwise consists of farms and 2-story houses. The structures are so prominent in the landscape that local touring companies now have their boats go by the island specifically to view the turbines. Our lunch stop was  a church, which had been carefully selected because it represented neutral ground for all factions on the Island.  Farmers, TransAlta representatives and anti-wind community members then discussed issues with the journalists.  As a Queen’s professor and an observer, I did  not directly participate in those sessions but used this as an opportunity to listen and learn about the issues.

Green energy initiatives are simply not as clean-cut as one would like, or the press would have us believe. Wind power does produce minimal pollution when generating energy, a big advantage in a province that relies on dirty coal-powered generating plants and controversial nuclear plants.  However, having such dominant structures planted throughout one’s community really changes one’s relationship to the land and landscape.  Wolfe Island is now an important case study for all communities and corporations considering wind power developments.

After Wolfe Island, we travelled to Picton where we had a lovely evening meal at one of the local restaurants. Frank Allen spoke in detail and gave some intriguing perspectives on environmental reporting and communicating complex ideas to the public.

Frank speaking on environmental journalism at IJNR dinner in Picton

Frank speaking on environmental journalism at IJNR dinner in Picton

The next day, they joined a fishing trip led by my colleague Tim Johnson, a scientist with the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources fisheries research station in Glenora. I said my good byes that evening, but I’ll definitely be following the work of all the journalists I met during this trip.  It was a wonderful opportunity, not only for the journalists, but also for this scientist, to discuss Lake Ontario environmental issues.

My thanks go to the Institute of Journalism and Natural Resources for their invitation and hosting.

[Part 1 of this two-part post on the rising & declining fish populations in Lake Ontario is linked here.]

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