Auditor General’s Report: Environmental and Health Impacts of Renewable Energy

Ontario’s 2007 Climate Change Action Plan outlined “coal phase-out, renewables, and other electricity initiatives” as measures to help Ontario achieve its greenhouse gas reduction targets, which call for reductions below 1990 levels of 6% by 2014, 15% by 2020, and 80% by 2050.

The Ministry’s 2010 Long-Term Energy Plan reiterated the commitment to improve the health of Ontarians and to fight climate change by investing in renewable energy and phasing out coal, which is the largest source of greenhouse gases and accounts for a number of health and environmental problems.

Environmental Concerns

The Ministry indicated that renewable energy will help reduce greenhouse gases by displacing gas-fired generation. However, as noted earlier, any significant increase in intermittent renewable energy requires backup power by either coal- or gas-fired plants because wind and solar power have relatively low reliability and capacity. In Ontario’s case, because coal-fired plants are being phased out by the end of 2014, this backup will need to come from gas-fired plants. Although gas-fired plants emit fewer greenhouse gases than coal-fired plants, they still contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. Our review of experiences in other jurisdictions showed that the original estimated reduction in greenhouse gases had not been reduced to take into account the continuing need to run fossil-fuel backup power-generating facilities. For instance:

  • A 2008 study in the United Kingdom found that power swings from intermittent wind generation need to be compensated for by natural-gas generation, which has meant less of a reduction in greenhouse gases than ori­ginally expected.
  • A 2009 study in Denmark noted that although the country is the world’s biggest user of wind energy, it has had to keep its coal-fired plants running to maintain system stability.
  • The German government also had to build new coal-fired plants and refurbish old ones to cover electricity requirements that could not be met through intermittent wind generation.

According to the Ministry, Ontario is unique in its commitment to phase out coal by the end of 2014: other jurisdictions did not make that com­mitment. The Ministry has not yet quantified how much backup power will be required from other energy sources to compensate for the intermittent nature of renewable energy, and accordingly has no data on the impact of gas-fired backup power plants on greenhouse gas emissions.

Health Concerns

In recent years, there have been growing public-health concerns about wind turbines, particularly with regard to the noise experienced by people liv­ing near wind farms. In May 2010,Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health issued a report conclud­ing that available scientific evidence to date did not demonstrate a direct causal link between wind tur­bine noise and adverse health effects. However, the report was questioned by environmental groups, physicians, engineers, and other professionals, who noted that it was merely a literature review that presented no original research and did not reflect the situation in Ontario. We also noted that only a limited number of renewable generators were in operation in Ontario when the report was prepared in spring 2010, a few months after the launch of the FIT program.

One of the provisions of the Act was the estab­lishment of an academic research chair to examine the potential effects of renewable energy generators on public health. In February 2010, an engineer­ing professor from the University of Waterloo was appointed to this position but, as of July 2011, there had been no report on the results of any research conducted to date.


To ensure that renewable energy initiatives are effective in protecting the environment while having minimal adverse health effects on indi­viduals, the Ministry of Energy should:

  • develop adequate procedures for tracking and measuring the effectiveness of renew­able energy initiatives, including the impact of backup generating facilities, in reducing greenhouse gases; and
  • provide the public with the results of object­ive research on the potential health effects of renewable wind power.


The Ministry agrees that the impacts of increas­ing the share of renewable energy in Ontario’s energy mix should be quantified where pos­sible and underpinned by objective research. For example, a 2005 independent study, Cost Benefit Analysis: Replacing Ontario’s Coal-Fired Electricity Generation, found that if health and environmental impacts were accounted for, the total cost of coal-fired generation would be $4.4 billion per year. This study helped reaffirm the province’s decision to phase out coal and to increase the share of renewable energy in Ontario’s energy mix.

The Ministry will continue to rely on the Chief Medical Officer of Health to provide objective advice on the potential health impacts of renewable energy generators. The Chief Med­ical Officer of Health’s recent review found that the scientific evidence does not demonstrate any direct causal link between wind turbine noise and adverse health effects.

The Ministry will continue to work with other ministries to promote further scientifically based information about the impacts of renew­able energy. For example, the Ministry of the Environment has appointed an independent research chair for a five-year term to undertake research on the health impacts of renewable energy generators. Considerable work is well under way by the chair and his team to address the important technological, health, and safety aspects of the renewable energy technologies.


Ongoing plans, including the Integrated Power System Plan, identify the environmental emis­sions from planned resources, and they clearly identify a reduction in emissions over the time that the OPA has been involved in planning and procuring resources and through the planning horizon.

14 thoughts on “Auditor General’s Report: Environmental and Health Impacts of Renewable Energy

  1. Since the government has already certified that land IWTs are safe, wind contracts can’t be delayed or canceled without breech of contract lawsuits being filed against the governmnet. Projects can’t be shut down either without the same results.
    Wind developers can claim their contracts were interfered with for ony political reasons and not any valid reasons to break the contracts.. It’s the same situation with the gas generator contracts that were canceled which are going to have to be paid for.
    This puts the wind developers in charge of the situation. Take the IWTs or buy us out.

    • The IWT developers have been “in” on every aspect of the IWT scam from the start, from the Wind Power Production Incentive [WPPI] of the Fed, Lib govt in the 1990’s, through the writing of the ON Lib legislation, the regulations and the contracts for IWTs over the past 15 years or so.

      Henry’s comment which follows puts FAR too much stress on annoyance; as I sit here surrounded by 18 Vestas 1.65 MW IWTs all jammed in within a 3 km radius of my house, unable to get the restorative sleep all humans look forward to at the end of their “day”, my comments are based on the sleep deprivation I am experiencing and the resulting exhaustion.

      Having spent ~ 13 h in the local Cty seat, ~ 50 km away from my house partly for a health care appt and the last few hours making a deputation to Council asking for mitigation of the harm being caused to the Norfolk Victims of IWTs of which group of ~ 70 residents, I am but one, I returned to be assaulted again by the IWTs and wait to be so exhausted that I can’t hold my head up before lying down so that at least, in a horizontal position, my body can do some of its recuperative work.

      • Johana.
        We have a mis-communication. It sounds to me like you have a classic case of ‘Annoyance’ from low frequency sound.
        If so then you would sense a rolling ‘diesel engine like’ sound in the head and suffer accompanying sleep disruption. Other symptoms would follow.

        ‘Annoyance’ is a term used to describe the response in the brain generated by nerve transmissions from the touch sensors in the skin. These touch sensors respond to the high fluctuations in the instantaneous intensity (different from the average sound pressure level) of the largely inaudible sound emitted by the towers.

        Annoyance differs from audible sound. You are likely to be able to distinguish between changes in magnitude and pitch in the audible sound and changes in magnitude of the toneless ‘diesel engine-like’, annoyance sensation. The two vary independently. Move away from a wind tower and the audible noise ceases, but annoyance can continue over a much wider area. (My experience for the limits are, say, 300 metres and about two kilometres.)

        I knew precisely when my annoyance and the causal vibrations, started.
        There was well defined initial sensitisation of acute splitting headaches and apparently continuous prevention of sleep.
        This response reduced somewhat after a month but, the ‘rumbling sound’ , the thinking-process intrusion and the sleep disturbance have continued over several years.
        ‘Annoyance’ is usually both location and time specific. Move away from the influence of the intensity source and the ‘noise’ reduces. You might sometimes lose the ability to think consecutively, to lose balance or to ‘feel’ vibrations in parts of your body. The perception of the rolling ‘pseudo sound’ continues, as does the ‘waking’ effect of any sudden peak in intensity.

        You would also find that, after sensitisation, you experience similar reactions at other locations where there is similar low frequency sound.
        Sometimes there has been no change in the sound regime at this other location but Annoyance has become suddenly apparent. This demonstrates that the change in response has been caused solely by the sensitisation.

        Also the pattern of ‘Annoyance’ is not personal – try this experiment.
        Stand with another sensitised observer where the emissions from two towers interact and your perceptions of the ‘Annoyance rumble’ will fluctuate in magnitude or be intermittent.
        My experience is that both observers then experience the same fluctuations and similar start and stop times. This demonstrates that the response is due to some quality in the impacting air (or ground) vibrations and is not personal to an observer.

        That is why the lawyers are incorrect when they assume that annoyance is associated with personal tinnitus. ‘Annoyance’ is externally generated.

        You may be told not to worry as the effects will ameliorate over a few years. The ‘expert’ who told me that, also said that in his view both ‘Annoyance’ and ‘waking’ were functions of the auditory system!

        Research is needed.
        We do not know:-
        a. What levels of intensity cause sensitisation across different age groups?
        b. The proportion of observers who, being sensitised, would be adversely affected.

        Peaks in the measured truncated-intensity (p*δp/δt) occur as each rotor blade passes behind the support column. That is because for an observer downwind of the tower, the blade vibrations are rapidly first screened and then re-exposed. This coincides with obvious peaks in the magnitude of the induced ‘Annoyance’.
        Therefore there is, at least, some correlation between the two.

        The probable answer seems to lie in the way in which the touch sensors in the skin respond to discrete intensity peaks in the low frequency sound when it is not masked by higher frequencies.
        That would be why if you are close enough to hear the wind turbines, the annoyance decreases.
        I have “very little doubt” from my amateur research that there is a direct association between Annoyance and these intensity peaks.

        If this becomes proved then the design of the towers and some change in the frequencies used in the subsequent electricity distribution might result in reduced ‘Annoyance’.

  2. One comment on the above paragraph headed “Health Concerns”. My comment is based on my strong annoyance response to wind tower emissions.

    It is difficult to see how health could be affected other than by directly, or indirectly, being influenced by the ground or air-borne vibrations emitted from the turbine towers and from the associated electricity distribution system.

    Audible sound is straightforward. The majority of observers will be able to assess this aspect and unreasonably high levels can be controlled with planning conditions. Very close to the towers the turbine noise and the blade emissions dominate. This audible sound often masks the intensity peaks in the inaudible sound.
    These peaks occur because the sound constantly emitted from each blade is obscured from the observer as that blade passes behind the support tower. This causes the ‘cyclical’ nature of impacting intensity to a downwind observer.
    Pre-sensitisation to low frequency sound causes ‘annoyance’ in respect of the higher levels of intensity present in these emissions from wind towers. Low to medium wind noise conditions tend to be worst. High wind noise levels will mask the infrasound and tend to block the annoyance as well as masking the audible sound from the blades and turbine.
    The problems are that there is no assessment available of the proportion of the population who are pre-sensitised, and there is imperfect understanding of the levels of the intensity of sound or vibration which can cause that permanent sensitisation.

    It is certainly possible for the towers to cause serious annoyance – and annoyance greater than that from electricity substations- to those who are pre-conditioned.
    Perhaps the Chief Medical Officer of Health does not see the generation of the ‘annoyance’ response as an adverse health effect.

  3. Ask yourself….Who signs the checks of the Chief Medical Officer of Health (with OUR money by the way)? It is clear to anyone who does or who has worked in government….you twist science to support the policies of the government of the day….or you start looking for a new job. Funny how 3rd party independent research shows health effects from IWTs……but “research” done by our Chief Medical Officer of Health does not.

    In effect…..Dalton is our Chief Medical Officer of Health. Ontario “democracy” in action.

    • I grew up in a coal smoke filled industrial area and only knew 1 person with asthma. Not a problem in the schools that I know of at that time. Perhaps older public health studies/information/records are just plain ignored. Asthma is a lot more prevalent now.
      School public health records have been made for many years even back into the 1920’s in large urban areas. Public health has been a big issue in the schools for a long time.
      So records of childhood illnesses were compiled.

  4. The 2005 study is waived around regularly and is the foundation for all kinds of spurious anti-coal arguments. See Ross McKittrick’s work for the misinterpretation of coal-related health impacts. Jack Gibbon’s and his merry band at the OCCA and Gideon Foreman of CAPE are two primary transgressors. The OCCA takes it to an illogical extreme, by using a linear relationship for deaths arising from Ontario coal generation (and hence emissions). Based on that, 2010 was a down-year for coal-related deaths but we’ve seen an upswing in 2011. PLEASE.

    • BTW, the metric used by the OCCA and likely CAPE and the OMA is 25.1 premature deaths per TWh of coal emissions. It is derived from the 2005 study’s forecast of 668 premature deaths “caused” by 26.6 TWh of coal generation. The OCCA projected 2010 premature deaths at 316 — 12.6 TWh of coal generation multiplied by 25.1 pre-mature deaths per TWh. Feel free to check this against any of OCCA’s past and future projections.

      Based on logic like that, if we had two Green Energy Alliances, Ontario would be twice as bad off. If we’d had none …

  5. The Ontario Provincial Audit General documented billions of dollars of waste and mismanagement in Ontario’s power system but missed out many key sources of waste and failed to produce recommendations that will be effective in protecting consumers in future. There is an essay and a podcast at addressing gaps in the Auditor’s report.

    • Tom, your analysis is very good. I assume you were not one of the “independent consultants with expert knowledge of Ontario’s energy sector” the AG “engaged on an advisory basis”. I know the company I work at certainly wasn’t asked for input. Many of the other available parties already have their fingers in government/agency pies and so the number of capable advisors who can (credibly) provide advice and speak truth to power is very limited.

      • I met with some of the staff of the AG on one occasion. I was impressed by the eagerness of the staff. They asked questions only. I don’t recollect any clear ideas coming from them except that they really focused on finding experts from abroad to bolster their analysis. I tried to impress upon them the importance of local knowledge. I focused on the significance of Erik Peters getting outgunned by the Ministry of Finance in 2000 (Dr. Bryne Purchase was the DM at the time). I was hoping that the history of Peters’ humiliation would make them step up their game but I left the meeting with impression, perhaps incorrectly, that they thought my comments and arguments were not particularly credible. I never sought a consulting assignment with them nor was one offered. All of my participation was on a volunteer basis.

      • I suppose one might think that an expert abroad might be less invested and so more objective … but I think it’s exactly that “abroad-ness” that makes it harder for the hiring party to discern whether or not they have a foot or feet in any particular camp.

    • Replacing FIT programs with “green” energy/wind bonds continues the deployment of IWTs in marginal wind areas. Just get the financing and continue to install the IWTs.

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