Energy is the single most pressing problem facing humanity today. Although often overlooked amidst geopolitical headlines about oil cartels and transnational gas pipelines, electricity is a fundamental and formative energy type. The world is moving rapidly towards a low-carbon economy where electricity will be ever more critical for powering industry and commerce as well as for transporting people and information (see "Ontario’s Long Term Energy Plan" released by the McGuinty government).
Finding stable, cheap and plentiful supplies of low carbon electricity will be the greatest challenge of our generation. If all of this sounds complicated, it is. One suspects that the much-maligned Green Energy Act centralizes decision-making for wind power plants because it is not clear that municipalities are sufficiently resourced to be able to deal with the complex health, energy security and financial issues involved in making major decisions on critical energy infrastructure.
To read comments in the press or to attend public hearings on this wind farm project, one would be forgiven for thinking that the majority of people in our region are opposed although I strongly doubt that this is the case. Support for wind energy is a very consistent 80-85% around the world and wind turbines continually rank as the most favoured method of generating electricity. Human nature is such that typically only those opposed to a wind farm project will express an opinion.
Those in support or indifferent, will usually say nothing. To address this point the region may want to consider commissioning a representative, professional and unbiased opinion poll to assess the true state of feelings amongst the public. I suspect many people will be surprised to learn that the overwhelming majority are supportive.
The anti-wind lobby group is increasingly adept at producing pseudo-scientific health-related documents from credentialed individuals. These are intended to be and generally are, confusing to persons who are legitimately concerned about new developments in their communities. There is however a major difference between such documents and peer-reviewed papers published in recognized scientific, medical and academic journals. If one takes the time to investigate the health concerns raised by Wind Concerns Meaford and others, it will become clear that there is precious little substantiated evidence to support their claims.
The European Union (population 500 million) has legislation, binding on member countries, which states that the amount of renewable energy, as a proportion of total European primary energy consumption, will increase from about 9% today to 20% by 2020. The bulk of this increase will be met by wind turbines and Europe now forecasts that installed wind farm capacity in that continent will rise from 77,000 MW today to 230,000 MW by 2020.
Closer to home the U.S. Department of Energy in 2007 published a study ("20% Wind Energy by 2030 -Increasing Wind Energy’s Contribution to US Electricity Supply") which noted that wind turbines could provide 20% of the United States’ total electricity demand by 2030. The study noted that the target of 305,000 MW of wind turbines required by 2030 would be technically feasible with a growth rate which, as it happens, has already been exceeded based on installations achieved in the three years since the report was released.
Given these numbers and the lack of any negative medical evidence, is it not faintly ridiculous to be demanding additional medical studies before IPC proceeds with its 26 wind turbine/52 MW Silcote Corners development?
The levelized cost of wind energy is 50% and 80% greater than for the cheapest new build coal-and gas-fired electricity generation plant respectively. However a large proportion of the cost of coal and gas plant is made up of the fuel. If fuel prices rise in the next couple of years to the extent widely expected (once the global economy recovers and supply constraints start to bite) and/or if a carbon price is implemented (as seems increasingly likely) wind will be directly price competitive with gas and coal. Once a wind turbine has been built its fuel (the wind) is free and as a result wind turbines provide a cost-effective financial hedge against future volatility in hydrocarbon prices.
Does this region want to be an extended amusement park where rich folk and retirees from Toronto come to spend their free time admiring the idyllic view from their expensive second homes? Advocates of this option should be aware that tourism, like the hot-money that has crippled so many countries around the world, is fickle and can depart for fairer shores in an instant. It is therefore not a sound foundation on which to base a thriving economy particularly not given the rising energy prices expected over the next 20-plus years: these will make independent mobility (i. e. commuting by car from Toronto) ever more expensive.
Or does the future lie in creating a place which attracts vibrant populations of skilled young people with growing families and an eye to the future, which puts money in local businesses by offering sustainable, long-term jobs in relevant sectors of the economy such as smart grids, low-carbon distributed generation and energy efficient buildings? If the answer to that question is "yes" then generating electricity from wind turbines would be an excellent place to start. It would also be a first step in building a "low carbon, hi-tech" brand for our region.
By James Glennie Clarksburg, www.owensoundsuntimes.com