Ontario, don’t be seduced by wind’s breezy glamour
by Michael Trebilcock
Professor of Law and Economics at the University of Toronto Faculty of Law
I am not anti-green. We do need to invest in technologies that reduce our reliance on fossil fuels that contribute to greenhouse gas emissions.
But I believe we must do so with intelligence and not be seduced by vague or reckless promises that clearly do not stand up to scrutiny. Nor should we proceed with enormous public expenditures without appropriate due diligence and reasonable care, especially when it comes to the health and welfare of our fellow citizens and the future of our children.
I chose to live in a rural area that was once one of the scenic treasures of Ontario and that is now being populated by wind turbines. According to the premier of our province, I am a NIMBY. But NIMBY talk comes cheap from those who will never live anywhere near these incessantly noisy, 35-story behemoths that cause documented health and environmental risks as well as dramatically lowering property values and impacting one’s quality of life. And all for what purpose when we have alternative approaches that are proven to be less costly and vastly more effective?
While the intent is understandable, the Green Energy Act is seriously flawed – particularly in those aspects pertaining to wind energy and lack of due process.
If the provincial government of the day is so certain that the risks are negligible, then why does the act not contain protections such as indemnifying property owners for losses incurred or those who will suffer severe negative health consequences?
Wouldn’t a prudent government undertake independent epidemiological and environmental studies prior to giving developers huge financial incentives to go down a path that is largely irreversible? Proceeding without such knowledge, while other pressing social priorities take a back seat, is a classic example of “Fire. Ready. Aim.”
Let’s examine some of the facts.
Is wind power really a viable economical alternative to other renewable energy options? The European experience is instructive. Denmark, the world’s most wind-intensive nation with more than 6,000 turbines generating 19 per cent of its electricity, has yet to close a single fossil-fuel power plant. It requires 50 per cent more coal-generated electricity to cover wind’s failings; pollution and carbon dioxide emissions have risen (by 36 per cent in 2006 alone); and its electricity generation costs are the highest in Europe (15 cents per kilowatt-hour compared to Ontario’s current rate of about 6 cents).
The Danish Federation of Industries says: “Windmills are a mistake and economically make no sense.” The head of Denmark’s largest energy utility tells us that “wind turbines do not reduce carbon dioxide emissions.” The chair of energy policy in the Danish parliament calls it “a terribly expensive disaster.”
The German experience is no different. Der Spiegel reports that “Germany’s CO2 emissions haven’t been reduced by even a single gram” and additional coal- and gas-fired plants have been constructed to ensure reliable delivery. These people do not seem like NIMBYs nor does this sound like a green Utopia.
Given these circumstances, The Wall Street Journal advises that “wind is more a nuisance than a source of power” and that “wind generation is the prime example of what can go wrong when the government decides to pick winners. The idea that it can replace coal or natural gas in electrical generation is a fantasy.” Worldwide, wind energy contributes less than 1 per cent to the reduction of greenhouse gasses.
I am disappointed that our government seems so willing to accept the advice of the wind industry, as many of its claims parrot their views. The Advertising Standards Authority in the U.K. recently forced the industry to cut by half its false claim regarding the amount of harmful carbon dioxide emissions that would be eliminated by using wind turbines.
Isn’t it time we insisted on an objective, scientific examination of all the facts rather than simply accepting the industry lobbyists’ assertions at face value?
The government advises that wind power will cost us 13.5 cents per kilowatt-hour (more than twice current electricity costs) but has yet to publicly identify all the additional costs. Its enthusiasm for green is countered by its silence on how this flawed policy – one that relies so heavily on unpredictable, heavily subsidized, premium-priced wind energy – will require backup from even more publicly funded, standby generation facilities.
As the European experience confirms, this will inevitably lead to a staggering increase in energy costs with consequent detrimental effects on business and employment. From this perspective, the promise of 55,000 new jobs from green energy is a cruel delusion.
The people most negatively affected by this act are rural residents. By taking planning responsibilities away from local municipalities and leaving key decisions to subsequent ministerial regulations, the new decision-making regime gives them no say in matters that will dramatically affect their lives. Rural residents are not major contributors to Ontario’s carbon footprint but are being conscripted as a major part of its solution.
There is a simple solution to the impact on rural residents. Ensure that setbacks from residences conform to international standards as endorsed by renowned medical and scientific bodies that have closely examined the health and environmental risks. The French Academy of Medicine recommends 1.5 kilometres, pending further research on health effects of persistent exposure to low intensity noise.
Alternatively, the government could concentrate wind farms in more remote areas, as has been done in Quebec and much of Europe. But that would likely cost more and this government seems bent on sacrificing the welfare of rural residents rather than incurring more expense.
I have spent my professional life committed to the principle that reasoned and informed debate best serves the public interest. It may cost us all dearly that the present government evinces so little commitment to the same principle.
24 March 2009