UC Observer logo
UCObserver on SoundCloud UCObserver on YouTube UCObserver on Facebook UCObserver on Twitter UCObserver's RSS Feeds

Eco-ethics and the winds of change

The fierce debate over an Ontario wind-energy project signals a looming ethical storm

By Larry Krotz

In his office on the main street of Kincardine, Ont., 200 km west of Toronto, Bob Simpson admits to being puzzled. Across his desk is splayed a large land survey map blocked out with yellow squares, each indicating properties where the company for which he is local general manager, the natural gas giant Enbridge, has signed leases to install 110 wind turbines. But not everybody along this stretch of Lake Huron shore is happy to become part of what is being touted as one of Canada's largest wind farms, and Simpson, who has worked on Enbridge's projects in western Canada for nearly 30 years, says, "we were surprised by the extent of the opposition."

Fifteen kilometres to the north, around a pot of homemade soup in the family room of Tony and Carol Clark's farmhouse,  the recently constituted Wind Farm Action Group, Simpson's nemesis, holds a meeting to plot strategy. On first blush, they have a lot to answer for: how can anybody oppose so-called "green energy" and something as seemingly benign as windmills when the environment is at the top of the public agenda?  They treat such questions seriously. Bill Palmer, a retired engineer who is one of the group leaders, is quick to point out that nobody among their almost 40 members is opposed to alternative energy per se.  "When I found I was going to be living inside the biggest wind development in Canada, I was interested," he says.  "But like everything else, it was too good to be true. You have to turn over the rock and look at the other side." 

The other side revealed enough locally based concerns that Palmer's group is taking the only legal route available and filing appeals — 38 of them —with the Ontario Municipal Board.  For the rest of us outside Kincardine, the other side is likewise important. It reminds us that there is no such thing as an uncomplicated good. Even a so-called "clean" issue like wind power comes burdened with contradictions. The Globe and Mail recently identified opposition to wind farms across Canada as a growing trend, outstripping NIMBYs (Not In My Backyard) for almost any other sort of development.  Elsewhere, for example, NIMBYs are critiquing the rapid growth of ethanol production sites for their effect on food production and food prices. All of this points to new avenues of debate — some of them ethical — that people of faith and society at large will have to navigate as questions about the human impact on the environment rise to the top of the public agenda. 

In Kincardine, the wind critics focus on safety, health and potential environmental hazards to wildlife. They bolster their case through reams of research, anecdotes about blades throwing ice, structures falling down and noise, which Palmer says is "like having a pair of running shoes whirling in your clothes dryer." People living close to existing wind farms complain that their children have trouble sleeping and their livestock are disturbed.

But they are also driven by questions of aesthetics and what they consider to be the hypocrisy of governments and the industry. Politicians, stumbling over one another to be seen as green, want to prove themselves most dramatically. They do so, critics argue, not by encouraging conservation but by building something. Windmills are visible and quick, although in the end they deliver at best only 30 percent efficiency.  

Even if you find them attractive, there is no denying wind turbines are industrial installations bound to have an impact on a bucolic landscape. They are also getting bigger. In the mid-1990s, the standard tower stood 30 metres high with 11-metre propeller blades. Wind farms now proposed have 40-metre towers and 20-metre blades, while on the drawing boards are structures that will be 50 percent larger. "Every window I look out I will see them," says Carol Clark, "day and night, the flicker shadows, the blinking lights." 

On top of this, critics are upset by a process they claim has driven deep wedges into the rural community, pitting neighbour against neighbour. Even $5,000 annual leases, offered in secret to property owners to host turbines, have left their neighbours to live with the consequences.

Jane Pether, who — like Palmer —  is an active member of Port Elgin (Ont.) United Church, operates a boarding kennel and became worried about the noise.  But when her neighbour, a farmer, heard that she had joined the Wind Farm Action Group, he informed her she could no longer count on him to plow the snow from her driveway.

Their concerns, according to Palmer, could be somewhat ameliorated if governments would take leadership in setting regulations and standards. But because of what they call the stampede to green, governments have left the industry in charge of all standards, including determining proper setbacks for turbines from dwellings and neighbouring properties.

"In France," says Palmer, "where there has been a longer experience with wind power, the national medical association recommended a turbine be built no closer to a human dwelling than 1,500 metres. In Ontario, we only get 350 metres because that's what the industry says is okay and there are no regulations to stop them."

As well, they are upset that in Canada, governments so far take at face value the environmental screening reports the industry provides and have no obligations to produce a full environmental assessment, unless something dramatic shows up on the industry's own report. 

Kincardine considers itself an energy town, home for the last 40 years to the Bruce nuclear power plant that employs 3,000 people (including Palmer and Tony Clark before they retired). Glenn Sutton, another United Church member who was on the municipal council for 20 years — the last three as mayor — until 2006, proudly cites the municipality's official trademark, "The Powerhouse of Ontario."

Unapologetically pro-wind, Sutton steered the necessary zoning bylaws through his council. "The wind farms," he says, "are not without their defects, but at the end of the day they're here to stay."

If those opposed have their way, wind farms will not exist in their present form. Some of these folks are surprised by their own opposition. "If you had told me a year ago I would be speaking against wind power, I'd have said you were crazy," says Janice McKean, who runs a bed and breakfast just north of Kincardine.

She and her husband, Art, a doctor in the community for 20 years, have deep roots and impeccable environmental credentials. They grow organic vegetables, use a wood stove to heat their house, breed draught horses and have had their 110-acre property declared a nature conservancy.

When they learned six wind turbines were going up across the road, one of a number of smaller projects in the wake of Enbridge, they and their neighbours launched an appeal. The steady noise and the constant blinking lights would disturb their horses; the birds and bats would suffer; the bed and breakfast advertising back-to-nature peace and quiet would be worthless. 

A central irony is that green energy used to be the preserve of serious conservationists like McKean.  Now it has been co-opted by those who used to be seen as the enemy: governments and big business who, though promoting themselves as green, concentrate on supply, not conservation; lay out big and general, rather than small and local; and are driven by profit and public relations.    

"As a Christian," says Bill Palmer, "I have to ask, where is the justice? Where is the truth?  Truth number one is that money makes the world go round. Truth number two is that people are going to be hurt. We can't change the first, but I'd like to change the part about people getting hurt."

Readers’ advisory: The discussion below is moderated by The UC Observer and facilitated by Intense Debate (ID), an online commentary system. The Observer reserves the right to edit or reject any comment it deems to be inappropriate. Approved comments may be further edited for length, clarity and accuracy, and published in the print edition of the magazine. Please note: readers do not need to sign up with ID to post their comments on ucobserver.org. We require only your user name and e-mail address. Your comments will be posted from Monday to Friday between 9:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. Join the discussion today!
Promotional Image


David Wilson%


by David Wilson

If statues could talk

Promotional Image


ObserverDocs: Stolen Mother

by Observer Staff

The daughter and adoptive mother of one of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women share their story

Promotional Image


July 2017

From far and wide

by Various Writers

Meet 11 immigrants who are putting down new roots


June 2017

A suitcase for Cuba

by Christopher Levan

You’ll find more than giveaway toiletries and hand-me-downs in the writer's luggage. Each carefully chosen gift offers a glimpse into the lives of Cubans today.


June 2017


by Kristy Woudstra

Up to half a million people are living in Canada without official status. The ‘sanctuary city’ movement is growing, but the fear of deportation persists.


June 2017

Resisting genocide

by Sally Armstrong

In August 2014, ISIS attacked Iraq’s Yazidis, slaughtering thousands and forcing women and girls into sexual slavery. Today, the survivors are fighting for their ancient way of life.


April 2017

Dear Grandkids

by Various Writers

Six acclaimed Canadian authors write letters from the heart


March 2017

Called to resist

by Paul Wilson

Liberal Christians in the United States test their faith against a demagogue

Promotional Image