Even our best intentions might lead to bad decisions on clean energy. We need to ask the right questions if we want the right answers.
I have a purpose. As the Lake Ontario Waterkeeper, I protect and celebrate Lake Ontario. It’s something I enjoy doing, and most of the time it’s incredibly rewarding.
However, when wind towers were proposed and built in the Thousand Islands, my job became much more complicated. Asking questions about siting and scaling wind towers (determining where the individual turbines are located and how many turbines are built in a given area) isn’t easy for an environmentalist. It’s counter-intuitive. But without good questions, even good-intentioned projects can end up creating more problems than they solve.
Most of the world is concerned about climate change. It’s a grave problem for the planet and requires that CO2 emissions be scaled back significantly over the next 50 years. Replacing fossil fuel-powered plants with wind power is one way to help make the needed changes. But energy production has many pollution impacts that go beyond CO2. Degraded wilderness habitat, smog, inedible fish, leaking ash dumps, leaking radioactive dumps, and tritium in drinking water are all serious problems that need to be addressed head-on.
What’s required is government that works. That means depoliticizing the issues and allowing for open dialogue and debate that seek better ways to boil water. Part of that solution is technical and requires an understanding of how to produce energy in a sustainable, pollution-free way. Wind, solar, and co-generation are all good ideas, but careful scaling and siting of wind and solar facilities are needed to protect the few remaining wilderness areas we have left. Modern electricity grids are needed to better handle small and large amounts of power from millions of sources, including homes.
The way government and industry go about choosing the solutions will dictate whether or not we achieve our collective environmental goals. Unfortunately, the democratic decision-making processes that are so essential to achieving those goals are being blamed for “delay,” labeled “red tape,” and cited as creating uncertainty. These accusations come primarily from the current heavy-weights in the energy markets, such as operators of nuclear, coal, petro-coke, dams, and incineration facilities. The lobbying has been effective in pressuring government to replace time-tested rules with “new” and “modern” administrative processes that actually undermine democracy by empowering the influential power players to determine energy solutions for us. They, in turn, reap enormous economic benefits at the expense of clean air and water and livable habitats.
I believe that, in a market where billions of dollars are spent and collected annually, it is a fundamental mistake to give stakeholders the right to make decisions for the public. The threat of losing market dominance is enough of an incentive to ensure that those with vested interests will always make decisions benefitting their industry, with less consideration for the public interest. Further, and maybe more controversially, I believe giving good guys that represent green industries the same kind of decision-making power will achieve the same undesirable result.
For some, leveling the playing field by lowering regulatory standards is a positive step forward for green power. I agree that it’s a little fairer than allowing dominant players such as those with nuclear interests to influence all the decisions. But I reject the idea that important environmental decisions should be left to corporate and government elites to work out and implement. This notion is the basic problem. We don’t need politicians and private-interest groups constantly and haphazardly deciding when we need more renewables or more nuclear plants or more conservation. What we need is more respect for open, transparent, independent decision-making. We need more decisions based on proven facts, cross-examined and tested expert opinions, and scientific rigour. An open, formal process for making decisions about our energy choices will ensure our decisions are good ones.
Democratic approaches have been good to Ontario. Just comparing public utility ratemaking principles regulating natural gas in Ontario to the anti-democratic approach to pricing and regulating nuclear power should be enough to convince anyone. But even more proof comes from the public hearings held in Ontario in the 1990s, where forestry permits, landfills, and energy plans were debated. Each process involved the public and relied on science and facts. Decisions were written and relied upon by government. The hearing process prevented billions of dollars from being wasted in Ontario on outdated nuclear plants and new coal-fired plants that, if built, would still be polluting millions of people’s lungs today. Forests were saved, landfills were prevented, and vulnerable watersheds were protected because of public hearings. Unfortunately, self-interest and over-worked regulators have done away with the heart and soul of these processes. Since the late 1990s, Ontario has refused to allow hearings. Now, new regulations will eliminate many of them entirely.
While concerns about fish kills, drinking water quality, fish consumption advisories, habitat destruction, and waste management continue, permits and funding for controversial energy projects are extended with less and less informed public debate or consent.
The strangest example of the dark forces at work comes with what should be the most democratic projects: those involving wind energy. These renewable projects are seemingly well-motivated, but they often lack public review or consent. Public concern about siting and scaling are disregarded, labelled “NIMBYism” or “red tape.” As a result, the three biggest wind projects coming to Lake Ontario are destined for the most precious and delicate ecosystems. The Wolfe Island wind farm, already up and running, was built in the face of public concern and expert evidence (from William Evans, Barbara Frei, Dr. Barrie Gilbert, and Gerry Smith) regarding a small number of the towers sited in wetlands and rare grassland bird habitat. The Trillium Power wind proposal would see towers situated off of Main Duck Island, Lake Ontario’s most celebrated federal park and most treasured natural wonder. Finally, the Toronto Hydro plan to erect towers off the Scarborough Bluffs will shadow the last remaining vista in the industrialized western end of the lake.
If the environmental degradation is not enough to sway you, a provincially funded study in 2006 and 2008 by Helimax consultants ranked these three areas as the least favourable for wind projects based on environmental, social, and economic factors.
The solution is more democracy. The process we currently have in place is not old or outdated. It works if it is allowed to work. It helped protect Ontario in the past from bad projects and set the standards and criteria for good projects.
I believe the saying, “It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness,” and my choice of candle is democracy. Poorly planned, populist decisions about green-energy projects will be pyrrhic victories if they avoid shining the light on facts, science, alternatives, and choices available to our communities.
When I drive along on the 401 between Wolfe Island and Toronto, I can’t escape the sensation that we have it all wrong: blocks of precious farmland and waterfront surveyed for new nuclear plants; smoke from incinerator stacks yellowing the skyline in Scarborough, Pickering, Picton, Bowmanville, Kingston; gigantic clusters of wind towers built in the Lake’s last swimmable, drinkable, fishable ecosystem. There must be a better way to protect and celebrate Lake Ontario than this.