Wind Power on the Niagara Escarpment: Yay or Nay?

Wind power has good potential as a renewable source of energy that causes no pollution after the initial installation of turbines. It is also very space efficient and has low operating costs compared to other energy sources. As of 2010 approximately 2.5% of the world’s electricity was generated by wind. The cost of wind power has decreased by over 80% since the 1980s and is expected to decrease further.

However, wind turbines are often controversial, especially when constructed near people’s homes. Installing the turbines may require vegetation clearing and cause soil disruption and erosion. Noise, radiating shadows and aesthetics are other common concerns for nearby residents. Wind turbines can be a threat to wildlife such as birds and bats, who are unlikely to survive a collision with a turbine blade. Bats also may be killed by rapid changes in air pressure near the turbines.

Parts of the Niagara Escarpment are good potential sites for wind turbines because of relatively strong and constant prevailing winds, as well as close proximity to existing transmission lines. However, the downsides of wind turbines noted above are especially concerning in an ecologically important area like the Escarpment.

In a position statement from 2009, Coalition on the Niagara Escarpment (CONE) argued that industrial wind power development should not be allowed within the Niagara Escarpment Plan Area. The natural scenery of the Escarpment and key sensitive features and heritage sites such as wetlands, ridge-lines, and other habitats should be protected from the potentially harmful effects of wind energy development.

Research by Bird Studies Canada shows that wind turbines do indeed cause bird and bat mortality. Based on data collected between 2006 and 2012, they calculated an annual average of 5.45 bird deaths and 19.08 bat deaths per wind turbine in Ontario. These figures are significantly higher than those for Alberta and Atlantic Canada, where wildlife deaths are as low as 1.19 birds and 0.26 bats per turbine each year. (Note that wildlife mortality caused by wind turbines is only a tiny fraction of the hundreds of millions of deaths caused by collision with buildings, pesticides, pollution and other human causes).

The researchers also note that these numbers may be low because they only looked for bird and bat carcasses within a 50m radius of the base of the turbine, while other studies have found that carcasses may fall outside this radius, up to 85m away from the turbine base. Also concerning, the little brown bat, classed as endangered under the Ontario Endangered Species Act, accounted for 15% of the total bat mortality.

Bird and bat mortalities are thought to be higher in Ontario than other provinces because the majority of wind turbines are located near the Great Lakes, an important region for migrating species. This makes wind turbine development on the Escarpment, a natural corridor for migrating raptors each spring, all the more concerning.

On the other hand, the wind energy sector continues to develop new techniques for reducing the incidence of wildlife mortality. Things like ultrasonic “boom boxes” that use sound waves to deter bats, painting the turbine a colour that is less attractive to wildlife, and different designs that discourage birds from roosting are some of ways the industry is reducing its impact on wildlife.

The Niagara Escarpment is a UNESCO designated Biosphere Reserve, by definition a testing and learning site for innovative and sustainable interactions between humans and nature.

What do you think?

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