Scott Stinson Jul 10, 2012 – 6:58 PM ET
The federal government’s decision Tuesday to conduct a research study into “the relationship between wind turbine noise and health effects” on those who live near wind farms could give anti-wind forces crucial evidence in their dogged but as-yet-fruitless campaign to have windmills declared a health hazard.
Or it could call their bluff.
Wind-power critics have said for some time now, particularly in Ontario where every proposed new development is swiftly countered by local opposition, that all they want is further study to validate anecdotal claims of illness brought on by wind turbines. Now, it seems, they will get it. They just might not like what it concludes.
The statement from Leona Aglukkaq, Minister of Health, says the federal study of 2,000 homes from eight to 12 communities near windmills “is in response to questions from residents living near wind farms about possible health effects of low frequency noise generated by wind turbines.”
Saying only that it is “aware of health-related complaints” — and not aware of any proven link between windmills and ill health — Health Canada says the study will paint “a more complete picture of the potential health impacts of wind turbine noise.” There is no mention of moratoriums or anything like that, so provinces will be able to continue erecting turbines as more jurisdictions turn to alternative energy to meet growing electricity demands.
Nowhere will this study be watched more closely than in Ontario, where the government long ago married itself to heavily subsidized wind and solar energy as an economic driver (a strategy that is problematic for other reasons, on which more later). If Health Canada were to conclude that the activists are correct; that their complaints are not just the result of anti-turbine NIMBYism, the McGuinty government would find itself in rather a pickle. It would be committed to years of locked-in payments for wind energy contracts that the federal regulator might declare a threat to human health.
Alert readers will note that I used a lot of hedging language in the preceding paragraphs. If; might; perhaps. This is because it seems unlikely that Health Canada will find in favour of the activists. After all, it’s not like this is a subject that hasn’t been considered before.
Ontario’s chief medical officer, Dr. Arlene King, produced a report in 2010 that said there was no scientific evidence to support a “direct causal link between wind turbine noise and adverse health effects,” though it allowed that such noise “may annoy some people.”
Lyndsay Miller, press secretary to Ontario Environment Minister Jim Bradley, told the National Post on Tuesday that,“We have shared a copy of Dr. King’s report with Health Canada to support the important work they are carrying out. We look forward to the federal government’s findings.”
So, Ontario will stay the course, then. But in the meantime, as the health issue is cracked open again, evidence continues to mount that the provincial Green Energy Act’s focus on renewables may be good in theory, but flawed in practice.
Data from Ontario’s Independent Electricity System Operator shows that wind energy, which still amounts to a tiny percentage of the province’s energy supply, is remarkably inefficient in terms of producing at capacity when it is needed.
Throughout the past week of considerable heat, the province’s nuclear reactors have typically generated energy at better than 98% of their capacity at all hours of the day. Other sources of energy, like coal, run close to 15% of capacity in the middle of the night, but are cranked up to 75% of capacity in the heat of day, when demand is highest. Wind, meanwhile, typically generates best in the wee hours of the morning, then drops off during the day. Last Friday, the province’s wind installations generated at 17% of capacity — that was the high point — between midnight and 1 a.m. By 11 a.m., right when the province’s time-of-use rates increase to reflect higher demand, wind was down to 4.5% of capacity. That’s not an outlier, either: wind production routinely dips during the day, when it could best be used. On Monday, wind sources were generating at 15% of capacity at midnight. They were down to 1.4% of capacity by 11 a.m. By 6 p.m., near the highest demand of the day, it was up to … 6% of capacity.
Given such weak performance, it’s fair to wonder whether the Liberal attachment to wind turbines, which has contributed to a pummeling of the party in the province’s rural areas, has been worth all the trouble.
That’s an economic argument, though. The party has been on firmer ground with its medical arguments. That is, unless Health Canada knocks those aside, too.