As everyone in Kingston surely knows by now, there are 86 wind turbines on Wolfe Island. All are on the island’s west side, which is exposed to the prevailing winds blowing off Lake Ontario. According to Canadian Hydro Developers, Inc., the company that erected them, the turbines will crank out enough electricity to power 75,000 homes per year. The rotors began spinning last June after more than decade of dreaming, negotiating, public and private meetings, planning and building. At a total cost of approximately $450 million, the wind farm is the Kingston area’s largest-ever construction project.
Its advocates claimed the turbines would be clean, quiet, environmentally benign and would position Wolfe Island as a pioneering contributor to Ontario’s green economy. More important, they said, their construction and the annual fees paid by Canadian Hydro to the Township of Frontenac Islands and to landowners who signed an agreement allowing turbines to be built on their property would bring a much-needed economic boost to a rural farming community. Others feared that the turbines would be noisy, cause health problems, kill birds, and disrupt the rural ambience and landscape that generations of islanders had come to love.
Roughly 11 months after the “windmills” began spinning, Wolfe Island is a different place, but opinions vary as to whether the change is for better or worse. The most obvious change is visual: On the island’s northwest side, the towers of the “Wolfe Island EcoPower Centre” are omnipresent. You can see them from almost anywhere on the Kingston waterfront, but also, on a clear day, from Highway 401. What’s not visible, however, are the lingering tensions between the project’s supporters and those who questioned its value.
“People come to the island to get away from this sort of thing,” says Bruce Horne, a native Wolfe Islander whose family has operated the ferry between the southwest end of the island and Cape Vincent, N.Y., since the 1860s. “And now here it is, in their face.”
The Mayor of Frontenac Islands Township, Jim Vanden Hoek, has a different view. “The project is here, it’s running, and we’re going to receive benefit from it,” says Vanden Hoek. “I’m not sure how much merit there is in reflecting on criticism by different groups.”
From breeze to gale
The first person to try to harness Wolfe Island’s wind commercially was an electrical entrepreneur named Ian Baines. In the early 1990s, in response to a call for innovative power-generation ideas by Ontario Hydro, the Queen’s University electrical engineering graduate teamed up with Queen’s engineering professor Fred Siemonsen to study the viability of wind turbines on the island. Ontario Hydro cancelled its program, but the pair’s tests had convinced Baines that wind power on Wolfe Island was a proposition worth pursuing. The host municipality, too, also knew there might be something to the turbine idea. “Wolfe Island is a pretty windy place,” says Vanden Hoek. “That resource is a strength we have, and the appreciation that the resource is here is not new.”
By 2002, Baines was president and chief operating officer of a company called Canadian Renewable Energy Corporation (CREC), and he and Siemonsen had quietly signed options with 15 Wolfe Islanders who together owned approximately 1,500 acres. The options gave CREC the right to erect turbines on those properties in exchange for a payment to the owners based on acreage and the size of the turbine. That year Baines was claiming that a 10-unit, $30-millon wind farm on Wolfe Island could be a reality by December.
Baines was not alone. Hearthmakers Energy Co-operative, a Kingston-based non-profit organization that promotes energy conservation, and Gaia Power, a renewable energy startup formed by Samit Sharma, then a freshly minted MBA from the Queen’s School of Business, also had their eyes on the island. In 2003, with $200,000 in funding from the Federation of Canadian Municipalities and an equal amount contributed by themselves, the two organizations teamed up as the Greater Kingston Tradewinds Project (GKTP) to begin a feasibility study for a 24-turbine, 36-MW wind farm. Savings resulting from energy audits that Hearthmakers would conduct in municipally owned buildings in Kingston would offset the turbines’ cost, and profits from selling power to the province would be distributed among island residents. The GKTP ultimately fizzled, but Sharma secured a number of options from landowners and a grid-connection agreement from the province. In time, these would prove to be valuable commodities.
Meanwhile, Baines kept at it. By April 2004, CREC had joined forces with a deep-pocketed partner, Calgary-based Canadian Hydro Developers Inc., and the two announced they were prepared to build up to 150 turbines with a total annual capacity of 300 MW on four Wolfe Island sites — with one major caveat. Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty had committed the province to buying 1,350 MW of power from renewable sources by 2007 and had invited prospective suppliers to submit proposals for projects that would meet the demand. CREC and Canadian Hydro needed to win one of those coveted contracts, but they failed to meet the government’s basic bidding conditions and were excluded from the bidding process.
After a second round of government tendering, in November 2005 the Ontario Power Authority (OPA) awarded to Canadian Hydro a 20-year contract to supply 200 MW of power to the provincial grid. The OPA would purchase the power at a premium price that would help make the proposed $410-million, 86-turbine project economically feasible. Ironically, Baines, who had worked so long to achieve this goal, was essentially out of the picture; Canadian Hydro had acquired his company in January 2005. CREC was a now Canadian Hydro subsidiary and Baines was acting as a part-time consultant to its new proprietors. Instead, another familiar player was named as a partner in the winning bid: Gaia Power. Sharma had sold to Canadian Hydro the land options and grid-transmission contract Gaia had gathered during the Trade Winds initiative.
By now, some initially supportive Wolfe Islanders were having second thoughts about wind turbines. Many were taken aback at the larger scale of Canadian Hydro’s successful bid. The early proposals were for 24 turbines; now there were 86. Why? Too, some residents were alarmed by epidemiological studies from Europe and the U.S. that reported how some people living near wind turbines had experienced health problems including dizziness, sleep loss, tinnitus, permanent loss of hearing, heart palpitations and epileptic seizures, and attributed their troubles to noise and vibration from the machines. Most of these maladies correlated to the “setback” — the distance between the wind towers and houses, schools, roads and environmentally sensitive areas. The further away people were from the turbines, the fewer complaints they had.
One step forward, another step back
Over the next year, Canadian Hydro employees and consultants — geological surveyors, archeologists and others — ranged across the leased properties, sighting, measuring and recording, and meeting with landowners in an attempt to delineate property boundaries and prepare site plans for the turbines and access roads. Planners from Frontenac Islands Township and the company ploughed through reams of bureaucratic paperwork to secure dozens of permits and regulatory approvals.
A big project milestone came in November 2006, when the Frontenac Islands municipal council passed a zoning bylaw that gave planning approval, established preliminary setback distances and formalized a handful of other conditions for the project. It was welcome news for Canadian Hydro, but not all residents were delighted. Some felt the company’s 350-metre setbacks were inadequate and that the council vote should have been postponed until the results of Canadian Hydro’s environmental review were known. Too, the bylaw vote took place shortly after the 2006 municipal election, but before incoming council had been sworn in.
Gail Kenney, a longtime Wolfe Islander and founding member of Wolfe Island Residents for the Environment (WIRE) — a group of islanders who said they weren’t necessarily against the project, but wished to see it unfold transparently and in a manner that would not adversely affect wildlife or human health — wonders what might have transpired if the crucial vote had been taken by the new council. “We don’t know if that vote would have been different,” says Kenney, a retired schoolteacher. “I suspect it would have been.”
The zoning bylaw and the proposed 350-metre setbacks were so troubling to Wolfe Islanders Sarah McDermott and bird expert Dr. James Day that, in January 2007, they launched an appeal with the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB), hoping that the OMB would overturn the bylaw. The appeal made McDermott and Day instant pariahs to islanders who supported the project and feared that a successful appeal might push the start date for construction back by months. One resident who wished to remain anonymous in this story said the appeal was brave and well-intentioned, but was “like standing in front of a $450-million freight train.”
The three-day OMB hearing took place in July 2007 and resulted in some key amendments to the bylaw. Originally the setback from schools and the village of Marysville was 350 metres; the appeal increased the distance to 600 metres. The setback from seniors’ homes and hospitals was increased from 350 metres to 400 metres, while the setback from wetlands and roads was also bumped up. At the conclusion of the hearing, both sides were praised by the OMB adjudicator for having reached a compromise. Though McDermott and Day were not wholly satisfied with the outcome, they said the appeal was a partial victory and vowed to keep an eye on the project’s environmental consequences, which they felt had not received adequate attention during the planning stages.
Canadian Hydro countered that for years, and particularly since the project got the go-ahead from the province, dozens of studies had determined not only the optimal locations for the turbines, but also their potential effects on birds, bats, snakes, wetlands, geology, human health, roads and other factors. Canadian Hydro president John Keating pointed out that, specifically in response to the community concerns, the company had voluntarily undertaken a more rigorous environmental examination than it was legally obliged to do.
Nevertheless, the Environmental Review — Ontario’s second-most-stringent level of environmental reporting for large developments — was a flash point for some citizens and environmental groups such as Lake Ontario Waterkeeper, who were upset that planning approval had been issued before the document was finished. When the results did come in — four thick binders, with information from 20 separate technical studies — a number of citizens complained that it omitted information. They appealed, twice, to the Ministry of the Environment (MOE) to require Canadian Hydro to submit an even more rigorous Environmental Assessment (EA). Because EAs are incredibly complex and require input from dozens of government agencies at every level, public consultations and final ministry approval, they can take years to complete. Canadian Hydro was eager to avoid one.
Two events that took place during the appeals bolstered the belief of wind farm critics that the Ontario government was treating the project with kid gloves. The first event took place in the summer of 2007, when wind-farm supporters organized a private barbeque-corn roast attended by, among others, Canadian Hydro officials and the MPP for Kingston and the Islands, John Gerretsen. A year later, Gerretsen was Ontario’s environment minister and, as such, the person who would issue a decision on the final Environmental Review appeal. It also came to light that Canadian Hydro had purchased $1,500 worth of tickets to a fundraising dinner during Gerretsen’s 2007 re-election campaign. Some citizens complained that these occurrences put Gerretsen in conflict of interest. Lynn Morrison, Ontario’s acting integrity commissioner, ruled that he wasn’t. Still, she wrote to Gerretsen, “both of these events appear to have created a perception that you favour one group of ministry stakeholders over another.”
Three days before the second and final MOE decision on the appeal, Peter Fonseca, the minister of tourism, was assigned to the case, and, in late May 2008, it was he who closed the door for good on any further appeals. Its final environmental hurdle cleared, Canadian Hydro could finally put shovels in the ground.
The turbines rise
Five weeks later, in early July 2008, construction began. In the following weeks, convoys of dump trucks, backhoes and bulldozers rumbled from barges onto the island. The first order of business was to widen some of the island’s roads for some of the heavy equipment that would be needed to build gravel access roads through the leased farm fields to the towers. To create solid foundations for the turbines, four-metre-deep craters were either dug or blasted out of the island’s limestone bedrock, then filled with formed, steel-bar-reinforced concrete made from sand and gravel mostly extracted from local quarries.
The influx of some 250 contractors and labourers created a mini-boom on the island. The island’s two general stores, Fargo’s and Mosier’s, did gangbuster business. Tables at The Island Grill and Ernie’s diner were constantly full. But while business traffic in Marysville village was much appreciated, the traffic passing by some homes elsewhere on the island was not. Although Canadian Hydro spread water and dust suppressants on the dirt roads, the roar of engines and clouds of dust stirred up by trucks travelling to and from the quarries were constants during the day. The heavy-equipment disruption was so intolerable for one well-liked island couple, Dawn and Dean Wallace, that they sold their house and moved to the mainland.
The turbines began arriving in August 2008, shipped in 11 trips across the Atlantic from Denmark and up the St. Lawrence River to Ogdensburg, N.Y. In Ogdensburg, they were transferred to a special barge that, guided by tugboats, ferried them 100 kilometers upstream to Canadian Hydro’s staging ground at Wolfe Island’s winter ferry dock at Dawson Point. Each barge carried one complete wind turbine: the 80-metre tower, in three hollow steel segments; the school bus-sized “nacelle” containing the gearbox and generator; and three 45-metre long wood-and-fibreglass blades that together comprise the rotor.
As they worked through the winter, the work crews became so practised at raising the towers that by the end of the project they could erect four in one day. They repeated the same process for each tower. A large metal case containing the tower’s computer system was bolted to the foundation. Next, the three tower segments were lowered into place using a large crane. The nacelle was then attached to the top of the final segment. Finally, the rotor and its nose cone — the “hub” — were hoisted and fixed to the front of the nacelle. Electrical cables, buried for esthetic purposes under fields and roads, connected the turbines with a transformer station behind the Canadian Hydro office and maintenance yard on the Fourth Line.
Perhaps the trickiest part of the construction phase was laying the $40-million, 230-kilovolt transmission line that carries the wind farm’s electricity from Wolfe Island to transformer stations on the mainland. Billed by Canadian Hydro as “the world’s largest extension cord,” it is a marvel of engineering: 12-kilometres long, with three wrist-thick copper cables and fibreoptic lines wrapped in a Kevlar-and-steel sheath. It weighs 736 tonnes and was transported to Kingston in a giant coil on a special boat from Norway. Over two weeks, the transmission line was spooled out along the lakebed in a snaky path to avoid shipwrecks, water intake pipes, rocks and other submarine cables.
The island today
If you talk to Jim Vanden Hoek, who has been the mayor of the Township of Frontenac Islands since 2000, he’ll tell you that the wind turbines are not the most significant change on Wolfe Island in his lifetime. As he and other islanders are prone to point out, 40 years ago almost 150 families ran dairy farms on the island. Many of them supplied milk to a small Kraft cheese-processing plant that once was the island’s single largest employer, with about 30 full-time employees.
When the wind power people came knocking, most dairy farmers had sold off their milk quotas to retire or find a more stable job in Kingston. The Kraft plant had closed for good in 2000, leaving only a handful of full-time public-sector jobs for workers on the Wolfe Island ferry or in the township office. Not surprisingly, the dearth of local taxable businesses severely constrained the township’s ability to deliver basic services. Vanden Hoek says this socioeconomic shift was the biggest change on the island in the past half-century.
The wind farm presents a once-in-a-lifetime chance to turn this situation around, he says. The Canadian Hydro office (now the corporate property of TransAlta, the Alberta-based energy giant that acquired Canadian Hydro last October) employs about a dozen technical people engaged primarily in preventative maintenance on the towers. At the moment, says the office’s operations manager, Mike Jablonicky, six are contract workers on loan from Siemens, the company that manufactured the turbines, while the rest are graduates of the Energy Systems and Engineering Technology program at St. Lawrence. A dozen or so jobs may not seem like much, says Vanden Hoek, “but if you look at it in terms of a percentage increase in employment on the island, it’s huge.”
Then, of course, there’s the amenities agreement: $7,500 per turbine per year, or $645,000, which Vanden Hoek says is among the most generous of such agreements in Canada, on top of the property taxes on Canadian Hydro’s turbines, office building, maintenance yard and transformer installations. Together these monies have almost doubled the township’s annual tax revenue of approximately $1.5 million. “The amenities agreement gives us the opportunity to do things we’ve never been able to do,” says Vanden Hoek, adding that the township is now consulting with the community to discover what some of those things might be. One of them is likely to involve road improvement, as the mayor says this year’s roads budget is the biggest in the township’s history.
Other options include purchasing a refrigeration plant for the island’s new ice rink, which was built last year with volunteer labor and materials from islanders, Canadian Hydro contractors’ and residents’ financial donations — including a $100,000 contribution from hockey icon Don Cherry, who is a long-time summer resident. There might be new parks for kids or more funding for the local library, the historical society or ecotourism initiatives. Frontenac Islands Councillor Denis Doyle says there are already a small group of artisans and community gardeners on the island and speculates that some sort of small-business fund might lure more of them.
The most direct beneficiaries of the turbines, of course, are the landowners who signed leases with Canadian Hydro to allow turbines to be built on their property. Two types of contracts were available: one paid the landowner a flat annual fee, while the other’s payout was determined by the turbine’s annual power output. Since the contracts include non-disclosure agreements, leaseholders can’t discuss the amount they’re getting, but talk on the island suggests that it’s somewhere between $7,000 and $10,000 per turbine.
“It’s not nothing, but it’s not a retirement fund by any stretch of the imagination,” says Paul Hogan, an erstwhile dairy farmer who has three turbines on his 380-acre property and who was among the first landowners approached by Baines and Siemonsen back in the 1990s.
Hogan’s neighbour, Dick Posthumous, a part-time beef farmer who has a single turbine on his land, says the Canadian Hydro payment will be nice to have — he and his wife Lisa have two growing boys, Jeremy and Derek, who both play competitive hockey and need equipment — but says the wind farm is even better for the place he calls home.
“The island was basically dying,” he says, echoing the thoughts of many wind turbine supporters. “To keep it going they needed a big project like this to bring in money. And it did [bring money]. The company looked after the islanders first, had them driving trucks and making cement. I think the pros of the project outweighed the cons.”
Many of those who resent the turbines understand why some landowners jumped at the chance to have one. “You can’t blame them for taking the money,” says ferry operator Bruce Horne. “But I don’t think it’s fair. The property owners get the money, but there are neighbours in a 30-mile radius who are affected. If they don’t like them, they’re not getting anything from them.”
Like many critics of the wind farm, Horne — who is married to Peggy Smith, the lawyer who represented Sarah McDermott and James Day at the OMB hearing — says he’s not against wind turbines per se. He’d just like to see them situated “in a proper place, where they’re not going to annoy people.”
Horne’s position underlines one of the great uncomfortable realities of wind power. Obviously, wind turbines need to be located where there is wind. Too, massive projects like Wolfe Island’s must be as close as possible to the main power grid, since stringing high-capacity transmission lines over a long distance — which would be necessary if a wind farm was located at a remote site in, say, northern Ontario — is prohibitively expensive. Unfortunately for non-supporters, the most cost-effective locations are often close to inhabited areas.
Thus, economics definitely helped to create the adversarial scenario that arose on Wolfe Island. WIRE and other residents critical of the wind farm said that if the setbacks were further increased or the number of towers reduced so that the turbines could be further away from homes and environmentally sensitive areas like wetlands, they might find the project more palatable. But Canadian Hydro couldn’t do this, because the company had won its contract with the Ontario Power Authority to supply 200 MW of power because, in addition to submitting all the legally required approvals and studies, it had claimed it could do the job at a lower cost than its competitors. This entailed cutting margins to the bone during the bidding process. As a result, to cover the expense of the turbines, the submarine transmission cable and other fixed project costs — and, since it is a publicly traded company, turn a reasonable profit for its shareholders — Canadian Hydro needed all 86 turbines to make the project economically feasible and financially sustainable.
To the critics, this rationale only reinforced their contention that the wind farm was a “done deal” from the outset and that, studies notwithstanding, Canadian Hydro wasn’t paying enough attention to legitimate concerns.
There were, and are, legitimate concerns — especially regarding birds (including snowy owls, wintering raptors) and waterfowl. Wolfe Island is on a provincially significant bird migration route, a pit stop for them as they fly between the north shore of Lake Ontario and the American side. There is debate whether the rotors of the turbines spin slowly enough for birds to avoid a collision. Though the number of bird fatalities might be small in a given year, for some rare or threatened species these losses could spell the difference between survival and extinction. The danger is greater when the cumulative effects on birds of other proposed wind farms on nearby Amherst Island, Galoo Island and on the American side of the St. Lawrence River are taken into account.
And then there’s the noise. Wind turbines are not silent. Wolfe Islanders living near them tell you that, depending on the wind speed and how far you are from them, the sound they emanate is similar to wind rushing through trees or like a jet plane flying high overhead. Though it’s hardly deafening — normal “city” sounds of cars or trains are often louder — it’s easy to understand how even a muted whoosh whoosh in the background would disturb islanders long used to rural peace and quiet. Similarly, the regular blinking of the red lights on top of the turbines at night would not be welcome to those used to seeing only the moon and stars. According to wind-industry sponsored reviews of medical literature on the subject, noise or low-frequency vibrations from wind turbines might cause stress in some people, but they can’t make them physically sick.
To the chagrin of some Wolfe Islanders, revisions to Ontario’s Green Energy Act stipulate that to minimize noise complaints, wind turbines must be set back 550 metres from the nearest human habitation — a full 100 to 200 metres farther than most on Wolfe Island.
Into the future
The hopes and frustrations that Wolfe Islanders have experienced over the past decade are sure to be repeated many times over across Ontario. The Green Energy and Green Economy Act — legislation passed in May 2009 that maps how the province will phase out its coal-fired, greenhouse-gas-emitting electric plants by 2014 and replace them with cleaner, renewable energy sources — has spawned a frenzy of investment in the renewable-energy sector. The core of the act is the Feed-In Tariff (FIT) program, which mandates the Ontario Power Authority to pay a premium price to homeowners, small businesses and large-scale developers who build or install renewable energy sources and feed the power they produce into the Ontario electrical grid.
The FIT program is the reason why other large-scale Kingston-area wind and solar farms are slated for Amherst Island and Prince Edward County and five solar farms on land just west and north of Kingston. The most ambitious project of all is a 300-MW offshore wind farm in Lake Ontario — Ontario’s first — proposed for a 19,200-hectare area bordered by Wolfe Island, Amherst Island, Prince Edward County and the United States border. The developer of the 60-turbine scheme is Windstream Wolfe Island Shoals Inc., whose president is Ian Baines, the man who got the ball rolling on Wolfe Island.
Love them or hate them, Wolfe Island’s wind turbines are a reality, and each islander must now come to terms with them in his or her own way. Kathy Rothermel, the proprietor of an organic farm called Vegetables Unplugged, lives within sight — and earshot — of several turbines situated on neighbouring properties. Though she notices their noise, she doesn’t mind them being there. “It’s easy to demonize the big guy [Canadian Hydro],” she says, “but at the same time, if we want to move more towards sustainable energy production, I don’t think this is a bad way to go.”
For her part, WIRE’s Gail Kenney still feels the project was rammed through and is angry at the social upheaval it caused. Still, she says it’s time for “healing” on the island. “There’s effort all around,” she says. “I see people trying. There’s no point walking around with sour grapes.”
Similarly, Councillor Doyle says the most productive future path for the community would be to accept that the turbines are there for the foreseeable future, move on and try to restore the sense of close-knit neighbourliness that Wolfe Islanders have known for generations.
“We’ve got to look at it as, ŒWe’ve been dealt this hand, and what can we do with the [financial] benefits we’re getting from it?’” says Doyle, who represents Wolfe Island district. “We have to try to expand the common good of every islander, and try to address the concerns of the people living among the towers who are more inconvenienced than the rest of us.”