“It’s a rage where I could kill somebody” (Nova Scotia)
Aug 13, 2010
Wind power is sold as the answer to Nova Scotia’s quest for renewable energy, but we’re overlooking the health effects on people who live near windmills, and some serious questions about whether wind can really solve our electrical problems.
—Bruce Wark, The Coast, 8/5/10
There are ironies everywhere if you notice them. Like the Dutch windmills on June MacDonald’s yellow tablecloth. MacDonald, a 64-year-old retired school teacher with twinkling eyes and good-humoured determination, has been fighting for more than a year against the installation of windmills near her home in Baileys Brook, Pictou County. But they’re nothing like the squat, old-fashioned ones on her kitchen table.
The modern industrial windmills that worry MacDonald and her husband, Rod, tower 121 metres to the topmost blade. That’s almost one-and-a-half times the height of Purdy’s Wharf Tower 2 on the Halifax waterfront. The tips of their 41-metre-long blades can sweep through the air at over 300 kilometres an hour, cleaving a swath of sky that covers 5,281 square metres, almost the same area as an American football field.
“The wind turbines won’t be tiny, they’ll be huge. They’ll dominate that ridge line from end all the way down to end,” says neighbour Kristen Overmyer as he stands in June MacDonald’s living room, pointing across the cow pasture to Brown’s Mountain, the imposing, weathered ridge that shelters the tiny community of Baileys Brook at its foot, but which is buffeted by strong westerly winds at its peak. “When you look at this beautiful setting here, your attention is going to be immediately drawn to these machines, so the character of this entire valley is going to be changed forever.”
Another irony: Overmyer and his artist-wife, Susan, moved here seven years ago from the US after seeing pictures of Pictou County on American TV. They fell in love with the area’s quiet beauty, but now find themselves trying to defend it against a big industrial project.
“I have a master’s in mechanical engineering and three years ago, when I was first looking at these machines, yes, I could see a certain aesthetic appreciation for the design of them,” says Overmyer, a tall, soft-spoken man whose neat appearance matches his meticulous research methods. “But when you take a setting like this and you transform it into an industrial power-generating plant, with not just one of these machines or three of these machines, but 30 of them in the first phase alone, then that’s a very different story.”
“I started off being pro-windmills until I learned a little more,” says June MacDonald, who notes she’ll likely see 18 turbines about 1,400 metres from her home. “However, we really have no guarantee of that because all we’ve seen so far is a map with dots on it.”
The map with dots on it can be found in documents that Shear Wind Inc. submitted to provincial officials in August 2008.1 The Bedford-based company, which has since sold a controlling interest to Spanish billionaire Manuel Jove, president of Inveravante, a privately held Spanish utility conglomerate,2 was seeking environmental approval for Phase 1 of its Glen Dhu power project.3 The $170 million first phase consists of 30 wind turbines, each generating two megawatts of electricity. It was originally scheduled to be up and running by December 2009, but was postponed until the end of this year. Now, the company is promising to have it in full operation by early 2011. If a second phase is eventually approved, it could bring the total number of turbines to 100 or more, spread over 10,000 acres.4
Last year, the Overmyers, the MacDonalds and several of their neighbours established a non-profit group called the Eco Awareness Society to gather research and forge alliances in the fight against the Glen Dhu project.5 As part of their efforts, they began following events in Mars Hill, a town in northern Maine close to the New Brunswick border where 17 families have filed lawsuits against a wind company, two construction firms and the town itself over the installation of 28 one-and-a-half megawatt wind turbines.6 The Mars Hill turbines were erected along the top of a ridge similar in height to Brown’s Mountain. And according to people who live within a kilometre of them, life has been hell since the first turbines started turning in December 2006.7
“I have never felt the rage that I feel when I go out to put chicken on my grill and it’s so damn loud I don’t want to stand out there and cook it,” says Carol Cowperthwaite, a 68-year-old retired teacher who lives with her husband Merle on land facing Mars Hill Mountain. “I’ve never felt that kind of rage. It’s like a rage where I could kill somebody. That’s how it affects me.”
The Cowperthwaites are among the families who have launched lawsuits seeking compensation for loss in property values as well as for the adverse health and environmental effects they say the wind turbines are causing. Carol Cowperthwaite says a municipal official assured them before they bought their property that the turbines wouldn’t affect them. “The town manager told us three times, three different times he told us, that we wouldn’t even see them, much less hear them because they were going on the front side of the mountain. That was a huge lie.”
The Cowperthwaites participated in a study of turbine effects conducted by Michael Nissenbaum, a radiologist who practises at the Northern Maine Medical Center. Nissenbaum interviewed 22 of about 30 adults living within a kilometre of the turbines. He found 18 reported chronic sleep deprivation, nine said they were experiencing severe headaches, including migraines, 13 reported stress, 17 persistent anger and more than a third had new or worsened depression. Residents also reported dizziness and nausea due to the flickering light and shadows cast by fast-turning turbine blades.
When Nissenbaum compared those results with 27 interviews he conducted among people who lived nearly five kilometres away, he found that the greater distance reduced turbine health effects to zero. He presented his findings to the Maine Medical Association, which passed a resolution last September calling for more public education about the effects of wind turbines, as well as further research. “It is not a matter of not having wind turbines,” Nissenbaum’s study concludes. “It is a matter of putting them where they will not affect people’s health.”8
Last January, The Coast began asking Ian Tillard, Shear Wind’s chief operating officer, for an interview about the Glen Dhu project in Pictou County. Tillard agreed to talk, but repeatedly postponed interview dates set up in February and March. In April, he said he didn’t see the need for an interview after all, and referred us to company newsletters and other public documents. Those documents say that the closest homes will be 1.12 kilometres away from the turbines. These are properties whose owners are leasing land to the company. The Overmyers, MacDonalds and other residents around Baileys Brook, who are not leasing land, will be at least 1.44 kilometres from the turbines.
“I would say the people in Nova Scotia have reason to be worried,” says Richard James, an acoustics engineer based in Michigan. He notes that as in Mars Hill, Maine, the Shear Wind turbines will be installed on ridge tops. “Wind speeds on top of the ridge will generally be much, much higher than they are in the valley at the foot of the ridge.” James says. “This leads to a very common condition where during the night there’s absolutely no sound in the community at the foot of the ridge. It would be so quiet you could hear a clock ticking and the turbines will be running full blast and that will lead to complaints.”
James, who has worked since 2006 on wind turbine issues with community groups in the eastern US and Ontario,9 says that large turbines on ridge tops should be at least three kilometres from the nearest homes. He explains that the low frequency noise generated by turbines can carry long distances. “If you can imagine a thunder storm when it’s at a great distance you hear a rumble,” James says. “It’s essentially a low vibratory rumble that goes right through people’s homes. Windows open, windows closed, doesn’t matter.”
He adds that under moderate wind conditions, the turbines produce a “whoosh, whoosh, whoosh,” while higher winds generate thumping sounds. “It can actually turn into thumps that are palpable in a person’s chest,” he explains. “I’ve experienced that personally and I’m not particularly sensitive to low frequency sound. I know other acousticians who are more sensitive to low frequency and they have a difficulty even being near the wind turbines.”
James is familiar with the situation in Lower West Pubnico, where Daniel d’Entremont, his wife Carolyn and their six children abandoned their home in 2006 about a year after the installation of 17 wind turbines, some as close as 300 metres and all within 1.6 kilometres. The d’Entremonts suffered a wide range of effects including ringing in their ears, blurred vision and problems concentrating on school work. “I get this pulsating feeling in my chest—a feeling I don’t like, but I can’t get rid of,” Daniel d’Entremont told the Halifax Daily News. “I can’t shake it off, unless I get away from the turbines.”10
Ward and Mae Brubacher know the feeling. The Brubachers, a couple in their 50s who live 750 metres from two Shear Wind turbines on remote Fitzpatrick Mountain in Pictou County,11 compare the noise vibrations to the booming of car stereo speakers. “Many times we have laid awake in bed with all the windows shut in the house listening to the whompf, whompf, whompf,” says Ward Brubacher. “You get up, you read, you wait until you’re exhausted so you can sleep through it.”
“There are times when I’ve been working on my flowerbeds and I have to get into the car and go into town for a break from the noise,” says Mae Brubacher. “Sometimes it’s four to five days in a row when it’s really loud. You’re losing sleep and there are certain days when you’re stressed to the limit.” In another of life’s ironies, the Brubachers generate electricity from a solar panel and live completely off the grid. They describe themselves as “tree huggers” who have nothing against “green” energy, but add that people who haven’t experienced wind turbines have no idea what they’re like.
“The general public is quite excited about wind power and have been brainwashed to think wherever they see a wind farm that’s great, Nova Scotia is becoming a leader in green energy,” Ward says. “People are brainwashed to think that. That’s what we’re up against.”
Citizens groups fighting the installation of wind turbines are now active all over the world including in Europe, Australia, New Zealand, the US and Canada. In April, the Japanese government responded to persistent citizens’ complaints about headaches, insomnia, dizziness and buzzing in the ears by setting up a four-year health study.12 Meanwhile, in Ontario, a coalition of 44 citizens’ groups called Wind Concerns Ontario has helped persuade more than 60 municipalities to pass resolutions calling for more local control over wind projects, and in some cases, a moratorium on new ones.13 The coalition is also supporting a lawsuit to be heard in September that, if successful, could stop any new projects until independent medical studies are completed.14
So far in Nova Scotia, public officials from the premier on down seem singularly unconcerned about the potential health effects of wind turbines. Darrell Dexter told us in late April that although numerous scientific studies have been conducted, none has found any connection between turbines and health—a statement contradicted by Allison Denning, a senior official at the federal health department. In August 2009, Denning sent a letter to provincial environment officials listing a number of peer-reviewed scientific studies which suggest that wind turbines may have adverse health effects.15
Official indifference and company secrecy have made opposition to the Glen Dhu project an exercise in frustration. When residents around Baileys Brook tried to find out how close the wind turbines would be to their homes, Shear Wind refused to release site maps. Instead, the company assured residents they had nothing to worry about. Kristen Overmyer says that at a public meeting on August 30, 2007, Shear Wind president and CEO Mike Magnus claimed the closest turbines would be at least two kilometres away. Overmyer says Magnus went even further during a public meeting on April 2, 2008. When homeowner Bob Bennett of Merigomish expressed concerns that turbines would be installed near his home, the New Glasgow News quoted Magnus as saying, “From what we can gather, 95 percent of the turbines are located three to four kilometers away from the closest residence.”16
Overmyer says residents finally discovered the truth when the company filed for environmental approval in August 2008. “Instead of the turbines being far back in the highlands as described, there was a phalanx of turbines pressed hard against the escarpment’s edge and looming over the valley,” Overmyer wrote in an email to The Coast. “The sheer magnitude of the deceit first shocked, then galvanized our group.”
Overmyer and his neighbours gathered thousands of pages of technical evidence documenting the potential adverse effects of wind turbines on human health, on wildlife such as birds and bats and on possible disruptions to fragile ecosystems during construction and maintenance. In the fall of 2008, about 18 people sent letters outlining their evidence to provincial officials who were considering Shear Wind’s application for environmental approval of its Glen Dhu project.
In October 2008, then-environment minister Mark Parent responded to citizens’ complaints when he sent a letter to Shear Wind asking the company for more information about noise levels and the proximity of the turbines to homes.17 However, in a cabinet shuffle three months later, David Morse replaced Parent as environment minister and in February 2009, Morse approved the Glen Dhu project.
When the Eco Awareness Society wrote to the Minister of Health Promotion and Protection last April asking for a halt to any further wind projects until independent health studies had been conducted, Maureen MacDonald responded that her department did not have the power to intervene since wind projects are regulated by the Department of the Environment. Her letter arrived after the province announced that Nova Scotia would more than double renewable electricity generation by 2015 and quadruple it by 2020.18 The renewable electricity plan relies on the expansion of industrial wind projects and, since less than three percent of Nova Scotia’s electricity now comes from wind, scores of new wind turbines may have to be installed across the rural landscape in an attempt to meet the government’s targets.
And that brings us to another irony: In the end, wind power may not make that much of a difference in the actual volume of Nova Scotia’s greenhouse gas emissions. To be sure, this is a hotly contested issue, but critics of wind power point out that adding large amounts of industrial wind power to the electricity grid is not as simple or problem-free as it seems. That’s because wind is an intermittent and variable power source. It may or may not be blowing at optimum speeds when needed most. In fact, on average, wind turbines produce a maximum of only about 30 percent of their rated capacity over a given year, often when electricity demand is low.
The intermittency and variability of wind means it must be backed up by a more reliable source, and Nova Scotia Power is planning to use natural gas generators to do the job. That means that for every megawatt of intermittent wind power, NSPI must be able to generate a megawatt of power using natural gas turbines that can be turned up and down rapidly as winds rise and fall. Rapid powering up and down means the gas turbines run less efficiently, burning more fuel to generate each unit of electricity. And, as John Barwis, a retired petroleum geologist points out, “at some level of efficiency loss, the extra fossil fuel consumed becomes greater than the fuel saved from using wind turbines.”19
In the end, all those extra single-cycle gas generators ever at the ready to back up intermittent wind turbines may emit enough greenhouse gases to cancel out most, if not all, of the emissions benefits of wind.20, 21
Supporters of wind power, such as Professor Yves Gagnon at the University of Moncton,22 say that backing up intermittent wind would be easier if Nova Scotia expanded its grid connections with New Brunswick. When the wind isn’t blowing in northern Nova Scotia, Gagnon says, we could import wind power from northern New Brunswick.
But critics say Maritime weather patterns are often regional and therefore it’s not guaranteed that winds will be high in one province when they’re low in the other. And although Nova Scotia Power is planning to expand its grid connections with New Brunswick,23 it will likely take five to 10 years to complete, the same period in which renewable power generation is supposed to quadruple.
So why is Nova Scotia uncritically embracing wind power? “Short answer: politics and money,” says Kristen Overmyer who notes that governments set renewable energy targets creating the economic climate for the wind industry to make money, even if the greenhouse gas reductions the industry promises are questionable.
“People look at a wind turbine; it’s a very visible sign that you’re doing something for the environment. So the politicians can put up something very visible. What is sexy or visible about improving the efficiency of a power plant? Nothing.”
Bruce Wark adds: It is interesting what Shear Wind has to say about the Glen Dhu project resulting in GHG emissions reductions. At Shear Wind’s open house that I attended last January in Antigonish County, the company had a display board listing “Local Benefits of the Glen Dhu Wind Farm”. The final point on the board read: “Environmentally Sustainable project that plays a significant part in Nova Scotia’s goal to reduce greenhouse gas.” The company also made the following statement in a newsletter it circulated to households in Baileys Brook in the fall of 2008: “At the local level, by hosting a wind farm, the local communities around the proposed Shear Wind farm will be making their own essential contribution to the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.” But when the Eco Awareness Society asked Shear Wind to explain specifically how its project would reduce GHG emissions in Nova Scotia and to quantify the reductions that could be reasonably expected, the company gave this written response in its December 2009—January 2010 newsletter: “Wind energy is recognized as a part of Nova Scotia government’s goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs). This is cited in both the Nova Scotia 2009 Energy Strategy and the ‘interim report to stakeholders’ (Dec, 2009) led by David Wheeler. Shear Wind is proud to be a significant contributor to Nova Scotia’s Wind energy plan. Metrics are available from other studies.” In one of the documents it submitted to the environmental assessment process, the company said that since Nova Scotia Power has sole discretion over the use of wind power on the grid, GHG emissions reductions were outside the scope of Shear Wind’s responsibility. In other words, the company seems happy to claim that the Glen Dhu project will contribute significantly to GHG emissions reductions, but it has consistently refused to support that statement with any facts or projections.
20 See, for example, a report by Peter Lang, a retired Australian engineer with 40 years experience with a variety of energy/electricity projects. In a report entitled, “Cost and Quantity of Greenhouse Gas Emissions Avoided by Wind Generation”, http://carbon-sense.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/02/wind-power.pdf Lang concludes that: “1. Wind power does not avoid significant amounts of greenhouse gas emissions. 2. Wind power is a very high cost way to avoid greenhouse gas emissions. 3. Wind power, even with high capacity penetration, can not make a significant contribution to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.”
21 Also see results of UK study commissioned by the Renewable Energy Foundation: http://www.4ecotips.com/eco/article_show.php?aid=1789&id=279 The full study can be found at: http://www.wind-watch.org/documents/wp-content/uploads/oswald-energy-policy-2008.pdf
22 A report by Yves Gagnon can be found at: http://eco-efficiency.management.dal.ca/Files/NSREC/NSREC_-_Synthesis_Paper_Final_Yves_Gagnon_-_December_2009.pdf