This article originally appeared in Canadian Wilderness magazine, Spring 2009.

Brent Peterson grew up along MacCauley Lake in the cottage country north of Toronto. Tucked between the southeast border of Algonquin park and Madawaska Provincial Park, the Whitney forest contains rolling ridges of Canadian shield, dozens of lakes, and the eastern wolf, a species of special concern under the Species at Risk Act. Twenty-five hundred hectares of crown land just south of the lake is now slated for sale to a wind energy developer, and the 48-turbine wind farm proposal for the area is generating controversy.

The prospect of losing the wilderness experiences and vistas of the region has put Peterson in a role he never expected—leader of a community group founded to fight the project.

Wind farms can polarize communities. The turbines are highly visible, unfamiliar, and unlike many forms of power, often close to developed areas. The power they produce from the wind, on the other hand, is emission-free, renewable and clean.

“Green” power is about more than emissions. A renewed interest in sustainable energy, combined with provincial and national incentives, are creating a boom in wind development. After a slow start, Canadian wind installations are now growing at 30% per year, and turbines are pushing into areas of conservation concern. Without caution and mitigation from developers, this environmentally-friendly energy stands to make unlikely enemies.

In a Science Matters column, David Suzuki recently wrote, "It’s ludicrous to think that we must sacrifice all environmental considerations to get green energy onto the grid. It’s not green if it causes negative ecological impacts." With care, wind power could prove to be one of Canada’s most sustainable forms of energy. Much comes down to that famous real estate mantra—location, location, location.

Narrow turbines, big footprint

The footprint of a single turbine is small, but the network of power collection infrastructure and roads required to build and service it are substantial and permanent. During construction, trucks by the thousands rumble back and forth to the site, full of materials and supplies. The roads must be maintained for the lifetime of the installations, and each turbine may only last 20–30 years.

The effect of the turbines themselves on large mammals is not well understood. We do know that fragmentation of intact forests takes a toll on many species. Predators and invasive species gain access on the new roads, and disease can spread more easily. Alpine ridges in the mountains of northern British Columbia are now being explored for high wind potential. These sensitive areas are often critical winter range for the Mountain Caribou, a federally designated species at risk. The caribou are drawn to the ridgetops, where high winds scour snow and expose forage.

The environmental assessment for one ridge project, the Dokie wind farm in northeastern British Columbia, claims simply that it will not "disrupt mountain caribou movement, mortality or habitat to a significant degree". It’s unclear how the assessment was reached, as fragmentation is a well-studied contributor to herd decline. The results may not be immediate, but they are stark. Research by Liv Vors on the closely-related Woodland Caribou suggests that it may take 20 years for disturbance to push caribou out of an area, but the correlation between development and herd decline is clear.

Back in Ontario, the contested Whitney development site is not entirely undeveloped. A major transmission line and road placed in the fifties cuts diagonally through the land. But preliminary plans by RES Tech, the company behind the development, put the turbines and their roads perpendicular to existing roads, effectively slicing the area into quarters.

“This is bulldozing into pure forest that is habitat for all the same animals [as those in Algonquin park]”, argues Peterson, who says he’d never considered himself an environmentalist before.

He points out that oaks on top of the ridges are a food resource for wildlife, and Eastern wolves, protected in Algonquin park, also use the development area. If development proceeds, he feels the turbines should be placed along the existing transmission line.

The value of a wilderness experience

The environmental assessment process required of every new wind development addresses issues like wetland damage and erosion. It’s much harder to assess an installation’s effect on wilderness viewscapes—sightlines from areas of cultural or environmental importance. Sean Whittaker, Vice President of the Canadian Wind Energy Association, says, “The difficulty you run into is when people say ‘I don’t like the way they look’. You can’t tell people how they feel.”

CPAWS’ British Columbia chapter opposed wind development projects in the Muskwa Kechika management area in northeastern BC, an area recently lauded by National Geographic magazine as “a unique window on wildlife”. While their primary concern was the impact on the wildlife and sensitive ecosystems, the area’s status as one of the true wild places left in the Rockies played a role.

Location is key

A wind farm’s effect on the wilderness experience is a legitimate issue, says Leah Deveaux, an environmental assessment and community coordinator with ORTECH Power, a consultant to wind power developers based in Mississauga, Ontario.

By avoiding environmentally sensitive areas, developers may reduce conflicts with communities and save money. Marginal farm land and brownfields are excellent choices for a new installation, according to Deveaux. Road and power infrastructure may already exist, meaning the project requires less wild or arable land.

According to the Canadian Wind Atlas, the highly developed areas of Southern Ontario and the prairies are fairly promising wind resources. Siting in developed areas doesn’t address all concerns, however. Developers must still follow the environmental assessment process, and carefully monitor turbines for effects on birds and bats. Modern turbines are much friendlier to birds than earlier models, but it’s still vital that wind projects be situated away from bird migration routes, according to the National Audubon Society. Audubon supports wind power—recognizing that there will be some impact—as long as it is “planned, sited and operated in concert with other actions needed to minimize and mitigate their impacts on birds and other wildlife populations.”

Good communication

Conflict arises when developers do the bare minimum of community consultation, says Deveaux. “Wind is proponent driven. In Ontario, the Ministry gives minimum requirements,” and it’s up to the developer to do more. In the case of Whitney, RES Tech announced the project to the community and held an open house, as required. But Peterson says follow up has yet to happen.

“Community input and stakeholder consultation is about 70% of the (planning) process. Developers have started to realize that the more consultation they do, the less it costs them. Consultation can be far cheaper than delays”, says Deveaux.

In the larger scheme of things, wind power’s footprint is relatively small compared to conventional energy sources such as oil and gas. No power infrastructure project is entirely without cultural and environmental implications. “Though there may be real issues to consider regarding wildlife, especially during the construction phase of any massive infrastructure project, the overall merit of wind over fossil fuels seem clear”, says Tracey Williams of CPAWS Northwest Territories. “To ‘unhinge’ society from the hook of oil and natural gas pipelines is going to be very difficult, as we all know, and we have got to start finding ways to deliver large amounts of stable power to communities large and small,” says Williams.

Wind developers joke that there are 5 C’s of development, says Whittaker. “Communication, communication, communication, construction and communication.” Two more C’s—community and conservation—would go a long way towards allaying public concerns. Wind power devlelopers must add to their balance sheets the incalculable expense of alienating the very people who could be wind power’s biggest cheerleaders—conservationists and outdoor recreationalists. “I feel wind development is appropriate on developed land”, says Peterson. “There are so few wilderness regions left. There are so many better places for wind.” •