Wolfe Islanders at crossroads

Part 2 of 2: Wolfe Island’s community reacts to the wind power project

Some Wolfe Island residents said they think the installation and maintenance of wind turbines—like the Melancthon 1 wind turbine project pictured here—would harm the island’s natural beauty and rare bird species. But Mayor Jim Vanden Hoek said the majority of his constituents support the project, slated to begin operation in 2007.
Some Wolfe Island residents said they think the installation and maintenance of wind turbines—like the Melancthon 1 wind turbine project pictured here—would harm the island’s natural beauty and rare bird species. But Mayor Jim Vanden Hoek said the majority of his constituents support the project, slated to begin operation in 2007.
Photo courtesy of Canadian Hydro

The prospect of a commercial wind farm being built on Wolfe Island as early as 2007 has Philip Street worried.

Street lives and works in Toronto during the week, but spends most of his weekends and vacation time on the island. He’s concerned that the proposed wind farm on the island will compromise its natural beauty and character.

“This place is sort of an oasis for us,” he said. “We feel that these wind turbines are going to encroach on the quiet of the landscape. The sight of them is one thing, but the noise is unavoidable.”

According to the Ontario Landowner’s Guide to Wind Energy, published by Hearthmakers Energy Cooperative, wind turbines produce a sound that is audible for 250 to 350 metres from the base of the turbine and measures between 35 to 45 dB(A), “which is the same level as a quiet conversation.”

The issue of noise is part of the environmental approval process that the project must go through before any construction or installation, said Geoff Carnegie, the manager of Ontario projects for Canadian Hydro Developers, the company that will build, own and operate the wind farm.

“We submit an Environmental Noise Impact Assessment to the Ministry of the Environment for technical review,” said Carnegie, who’s responsible for landowner relations and for making sure that Canadian Hydro gets all the necessary permits and approvals for development.

“You have to be able to demonstrate compliance with applicable noise guidelines as set out by the Ministry … or they won’t approve the project.”

Carnegie said the Ministry will then also do its own noise assessment before the project gets approval.

“Like anything mechanical, the turbines make some noise,” he said. “But even if you stood right beneath it, you could still have a normal conversation.”

Canadian Hydro approached Street about leasing his land for the project, but he said he refused immediately.

Street also said he’s concerned about how the wind farm will impact the value of his property.

“It seems that the good of renewable energy is offset by the evil of these monstrosities,” he said. “I just feel that something is being taken away as well as being added.”

Meanwhile, Wolfe Island Mayor Jim Vanden Hoek can barely contain himself when he speaks of what the recently approved wind power project will mean for his constituency.

“These are pretty exciting times,” he said. “This is going to be one of the largest wind farms in Canada.” The $410 million project, which will consist of 86 2.3 megawatt turbines, would be a significant development for any area. But for Wolfe Island—a small island community with a full-time population of about 1,200 (the number doubles in the summer) and a total area of only 124 square kilometres—the project is particularly massive.

For the mayor, the project is not only a progressive step forward in the province’s pursuit of renewable energy, but it also represents a significant economic benefit for the island. It’s expected to create nine full-time jobs on Wolfe Island.

“There’s always been a desire in the community to increase the tax base,” he said. “And wind power is going to do that for us.”

Vanden Hoek said the majority of his constituents support the project.

“Generally, our community recognizes a couple of things. We’ve got a good resource [the wind to generate power], and the municipality needs economic development,” he said. “And this is one of the few opportunities for us to participate in that.”

But for some residents, like Street, the large-scale project casts an ominous shadow on the future of their beloved home, well known for its serene natural beauty and as a habitat for several rare bird species.

The concerns of residents who have expressed wariness—or in some cases outright opposition—to the project vary from the impact on wildlife and sensitive marshland, to noise and visual pollution, to how the entire project is being organized.

But Vanden Hoek said he personally hasn’t heard any opposition to the project from residents.

“We’ve got a very, what I call socially responsible constituent base,” he said.

Liz Crothers is one resident who has favoured the project. When Ian Baines, Sci ’74 and a driving force behind wind power on Wolfe Island, first brought the idea to the community, Crothers agreed to have an anemometer installed on her property to help measure the wind power on the island. She also helped Baines organize community meetings in the early days. “I believe in wind power,” Crothers said. “Renewable energy is the way we have to go.” She also said the project will be good for the economy on Wolfe Island by creating jobs and increasing the tax revenue for the municipality, since Canadian Hydro will be paying taxes on the turbines. The project also benefits her personally because she is leasing her land to the developers.

Crothers said she thinks NIMBYism (Not In My Back Yard) is the main reason for the opposition by some residents.

She said there are a lot of misconceptions about the turbines—primarily with respect to their effect on birds and the noise they generate—being spread around the island.

“As a whole, I think the community is quite receptive,” Crothers said. “Some people think the turbines are eyesores, but that’s in the eye of the beholder. I think they’re rather majestic.” Sarah McDermott is a resident of Wolfe Island whose primary concern about wind power is the effect the turbines will have on migratory birds in the area.

“I feel that any turbines going up close to sensitive land, like marshland, may affect the migration routes,” she said.

McDermott said she’s worried that the turbines will disrupt the places of congregation for Wolfe Island’s different species of birds.

“I’m all for renewable energy,” she said. “But I’m concerned about the environment and about losing sensitive species.”

Carnegie addressed the possible effect on local bird species.

“We’re sensitive to the issue and we’re doing studies on birds in the area,” he said. “I think you’ll find on a whole that [bird] mortality is pretty low.”

Carnegie said Canadian Hydro, along with its subsidiaries, have been conducting ongoing studies of birds in the area since last year.

“It’s a standard part of our environmental screening process,” he said.

“If you have a house cat and you let it out, the cat will kill 10 times as many birds as a wind turbine.”

Carnegie said large-scale wind farms in Altamont, California and Spain are two common points of reference for people who are opposed to wind turbines because of their impact on birds in a given area.

“Those two wind farms do kill a lot of birds,” he said. “But they’re based on old technology and they didn’t go through the same site assessment that we go through today.”

Carnegie said the new technological improvements to the turbines include taller structures and longer, slower-moving blades.

He said that industry research on the latest models of wind turbines show a mortality rate of about one-and-a-half to two birds per turbine, per year.

According to the previously mentioned Landowner’s Guide to Wind Energy, the single turbine at Exhibition Place in Toronto killed two birds in its first year of operation.

“In comparison,” the guide states, “the high rise structures in downtown Toronto are estimated to kill 10,000 birds per year.” Claire and Bernard Muller are also residents of Wolfe Island who are opposed to the project, but they are more concerned with how the project is being managed and controlled by external corporations and the government, rather than by Wolfe Islanders themselves.

“This is company-oriented and company-controlled,” Mrs. Muller said. “I think the people are being hoodwinked.” Muller said she would rather the project follow a model of operation common to wind farms in Europe, where turbines are owned and operated by the landowners themselves.

“They want [Wolfe Islanders] to sign up with the least amount of headache so they can go ahead and install their windmills,” she said.

The Mullers are concerned that for the residents of Wolfe Island who aren’t able to lease their land, the project will be of little benefit. She’s also concerned the construction and installation of the turbines will significantly disrupt life on the island.

“To say nothing of the temporary disruption, what are we going to get out of it?” she asked.

Canadian Hydro is paying landowners on the island $1,000 to reserve the right to install wind turbines on their land if they so choose. As the project progresses and all of the environmental assessments are completed, the location of the turbines will become more specific, at which point the respective landowners and the developer will enter into new agreements.

When the province changed the taxation formula in August 2004 to limit a muncipality’s ability to tax wind power, some residents expressed concern that only landowners will benefit from the project.

Vanden Hoek said the province enacted legislation that capped the municipality’s tax assessment base at $40,000 per turbine, per year.

“Basically, they robbed the municipality’s piggy bank,” he said.

Vanden Hoek said this upset the citizens of the township.

“The majority of my constituents told me that ‘If this is the deal we’re going to get, we’d rather not do the project,’” he said, adding that the change in legislation almost compromised the whole project.

“But the developers recognize and appreciate the need for the entire community to benefit from the project,” he said. “So we certainly expect that there’s going to be a compromise reached between the province, the developer and the municipality to make sure that the municipality does receive some kind of revenue out of this development.”

The Mayor said he is currently working his way through a “side agreement” with the developers to improve the situation for the whole community.

He said the negotiations are going well and he believes that a deal will be worked out in the first half of 2006.

But Claire Muller said she doesn’t believe that Vanden Hoek is capable of successfully working out a deal with the developer that will adequately benefit the citizens of Wolfe Island.

“He’s trying his best to get some concessions, but he’s at a disadvantage because he’s such a small entity,” she said.

Neither Street or McDermott nor the Mullers have organized any official opposition to the wind power initiative.

Although the project was approved this past November, the actual construction and installation of turbines isn’t expected to begin until some time in 2007. Vanden Hoek and Carnegie both said that most of 2006 will deal with obtaining permits and further environmental assessment.

Carnegie said the most significant challenge faced by alternative energy developers today is getting people used to the idea of wind farms with multiple turbines.

“Anything that’s new and different always stirs up emotions in people,” he said. “The technology has grown leaps and bounds and it has helped us to more efficiently capture the wind. “We’ve conquered the technological challenges,” he said. “Now we’re working on the social side.”

Still, Carnegie said that on the whole, he feels there is very strong support for the project.

“I’m sure people can always find flaws with any new project and any new technology,” he said. “But at the end of the day, the renewable energy business is very low-impact on the environment, while also generating a significant amount of electricity.”

—With files from Emily Sangster

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