Energy from the wind – the example of Wolfe Island Wind Farm, Ontario
by David Laing
We were shivering; bracing against a blustery, bone-chilling north-west wind, yet virtually hypnotized by the majestic beauty of the guardian towers and the gentle swish, swish, swish of the rotating blades. We wanted to linger far longer, but the cold won out as a freshening gust drove us back to the comfort of our car. It was a damp chilly day in early December 2012 and my wife Dayle and I were on Wolfe Island near Kingston Ontario, just finishing a visit to Canada’s second largest wind farm project. Our purpose was to get a firsthand perspective on the benefits and detractions of wind turbines as an economical power source for the Province of Ontario and also to understand the impact of those turbines, both positive and negative, on the local Wolfe Island community.
The Wind Farm on Wolfe Island boasts 86 turbines, each capable of generating 2.3 Megawatts, when running at peak capacity. The 197.8 megawatt farm is just under the 200 megawatt limit allowed in Ontario. Of course theoretical capacity is not the same as actual output. The wind is fickle and the turbines aren’t always spinning at their maximum velocity. Maintenance activity, both scheduled and unscheduled also reduces wind farm capacity. But, even considering these inefficiencies, Wolfe Island produces sufficient electricity to meet over 68% of the power requirements for the Kingston Metropolitan Area. 
TransAlta completed construction of the facility in 2009 and is committed to a 20 year contract to produce wind-based power for Ontario’s Power Authority. At something less than 9.2 cents a kilowatt hour, (exact contract terms are confidential), the price compares favourably to nuclear and hydro when all the cost for construction, maintenance, operations and environmental impact are taken into consideration.
Proposing to build an industrial facility in a natural setting is a certain recipe for controversy and Wolfe Island was no exception. According to our long-term friends, who moved to the island well before the wind farm project was conceived, the prospect of dozens of 80 metre towers rising above relatively flat agricultural land that also is part of a major bird migration route, elicited a particularly strong negative response from many local residents. The controversy initially divided the community, pitting family members against each other, prompting at least one to pack up and move away.
Yet 3 ½ years after TransAlta Corporation completed construction and began operations, our friends have indicated that the majority of the residents think that the wind farm is more of a benefit than a detraction to the island and that TransAlta is a pretty good neighbour, as corporations go. To discover more, we asked our friends to contact their neighbour Mike Jablonicky who also happens to be Wolfe Island’s Wind Farm Supervisor of Operations. And so a visit was arranged for that frigid December morning.
Friendly and approachable, Mike is clearly enthusiastic about his job and very proud of the farm and its operating team. We learned that he was assigned to the project from the beginning. He was, and still is the communications point person, handling all manner of objections and complaints from the local residents.
When asked about the acceptance rates for the project prior to construction, Mike smiles and hands us the “fact sheet” published by a group who were, at the time, anxious to stop the project. “Reading that, he said, I would be scared to the point that I wouldn’t want a wind-farm in my area as well”. The early objections he said mostly came down to myths, misunderstanding and a lack of information. For instance, residents were told that, during storms, ice could collect on the turbines and be thrown hundreds of metres by the spinning blades in chunks the size of a bus. Or that the vibration of the towers would crush turtle eggs, kill the crops because the dew worms would leave the area and cause cows to lose their minds and stop calving.
Mike hosted monthly communications sessions, talked to people in small groups and even one-on-one. Each issue was addressed in turn. He demonstrated the mechanics of how any ice build-up on the turbine blades would cause the turbine to slow down and stop, not throw ice off. He explained how vibration, significant enough to damage turtle eggs, would, in fact, destroy a turbine tower in about 3 hours of operation. As a result, he said the three turbine blades, each weighing about 11 tons, is balanced to within 20 pounds of the other two such that tower vibration is virtually eliminated. He also showed concerned residents pictures of other wind farms where crops grow and cattle graze right up to the tower base. Once the farm was in operation, these fears were proven to be unfounded which added to Mike’s credibility and helped build trust between TransAlta and the community. Support for the wind farm development crept above 50% for the first time since the project was announced.
But some issues aren’t myths. Wind farm detractors point to thousands of bird and bat deaths each year from interactions with the turbine blades. Complaints arise from turbine noise, both audible noise and low frequency “infrasound”, which is thought to be a cause of negative health effects such as: sleep disorders, headaches, depression and changes to blood pressure. Then there is the undisputable fact that wind farms forever alter the skyline. Handling these real objections required more than talk and education. Mike, and the company, had to have a process and an action plan for mitigation.
To mitigate bird and bat kills, TransAlta worked with the University of Calgary’s Professor of Biology Robert Barclay, to carry out a number of independent studies. The research indicated bat deaths were the far greater problem and the highest concentration of bat deaths occurred at low wind velocities. This lead TransAlta to adjust its procedures around wind farm operations in low wind conditions with the effect that bat fatalities have been reduced by 60%.
The latest available data from the Wolfe Island studies estimates about 900 birds and 1,900 bats were killed at the facility in 2011. This number is considerably below the Adaptive Management Threshold as set by Environment Canada.
While the hundreds of thousands of wildlife deaths caused by wind turbines in North America are of concern, it is important to put this in perspective when compared to the billions of bird and bat deaths caused each year in collisions with high-rise buildings and attacks by domestic housecats. ,,
In terms of ambient noise, Ontario regulates turbine set-backs from any private residence such that the noise at the residence must not exceed 40 decibels. Mike brought in a decibel meter and showed residents that 40 decibels is about the level of a quiet library conversation. He told them anything above that meant something very likely was wrong. He posted his cell phone number and told residents to call him with noise issues “twenty-four seven” and that “he would be there in 15 minutes”. When tested, even at 2:30 in the morning, Mike was responsive, coming out to check on the problem and shutting down the offending turbines until repairs were made. More trust and credibility accrued to Mike and approval levels continued to rise.
The health effects of low-frequency noise present a more difficult challenge. According to Mike, studies by local and provincial authorities along with the World Health Organization have so far, not been able to correlate either low or high frequency noise with any deleterious health impacts. The collective conclusion is that, for some people, living near a wind farm is such an emotional irritant that the annoyance factor alone may be the cause of negative health effects. So this issue remains unresolved although Health Canada is now sponsoring a very comprehensive study. The results are expected in late 2014 and it is hoped this will allow more definitive conclusions to be drawn.
Then there is the issue of wind farm aesthetics. Mike and TransAlta recognized that wind turbines do alter the landscape and this may be disturbing to some people. They addressed this issue non-defensively, in effect offering financial compensation in return for loss of view. During construction, over 400 on-site construction jobs and purchasing through local companies injected $22M over 11 ½ months into the local economy. After construction was completed TranAlta continues to frequent local stores for hardware, gas and automotive repairs. Several permanent well-paying jobs were created and filled with local labour. In addition, each year TransAlta provides the community with “amenities money”: $634,000 to be used for the betterment of the community such as road construction, beach-bike paths and a new water system. As a result, everyone on the island benefits from the presence of the wind farm whether or not they have a turbine on their property.
So after 3 ½ years of operation, Mike says, “I think we are about a healthy 80-85% acceptance rate, [by the residents], right now and, that’s probably as far as we’re going to get, and that’s Ok. We can’t have 100% consensus on anything we do in any community…80-85%, I’ll take that.”
I’ll admit to bringing a certain bias to this investigation. Dayle and I have stood beneath modern wind farms in several locales around the world: Costa Rica, Hawaii, Europe, Britain, South Africa and North America. In each case we have been impressed by the elegance of their functional design.
We all must recognize that there is no method of producing electricity that is 100% benign. While there is no mistaking their industrial application, wind farms are less disruptive and integrate far better into the natural surroundings than other power producing alternatives. Aesthetics aside, for us there is an unmistakeable appeal in their ability to generate much needed electrical power, using wind as a “free fuel” that is non-toxic, produces no carbon emissions and that will be available for as long as the sun continues to shine on our planet.
 “Facts and Myths debunked – Facts and Figures Ontario’s Electricity System”, Ontario Citizens Coalition for Clean Affordable Energy, http://www.occcae.org/facts-and-myths-debunked.php
 “Health Canada lays out a plan for study of wind farms, Globe and Mail, February 11, 2013, pg. A3
 2011 Stantec study, numbers supplied by TransAlta
 “U.S. cats kill up to 3.7 billion birds, 20.7 billion small mammals annually”, Globe and Mail, January 29, 2013
 “Are Wind Turbines getting more bird and bat friendly?”, Scientific American August 20, 2012, http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=wind-turbines-and-bird-conflicts
 “Health Canada lays out plan for study of wind farms”, Globe and Mail, February 11, 2013