Photo: Wind offers a healthy way to generate power

(Credit: Paul Vincent via Flickr)

By David Suzuki with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation's Senior Editor Ian Hanington

There's no free ride when it comes to generating energy. Even the cleanest sources have environmental consequences. Materials for all power-generating facilities have to be obtained and transported, and infrastructure must be built, maintained and eventually decommissioned. Wind turbines take up space and can harm wildlife. Hydro floods agricultural land and alters water cycles.

That's why conservation is the best way to reduce energy-consumption impacts. Reductions in energy use and investment in energy-efficiency technologies are so significant that the International Energy Agency refers to conservation as the "first fuel".

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No matter how good we get at conserving, though, we'll always need energy, so we must find ways to employ the least damaging technologies and reduce negative effects. We know the world's preferred, and currently cheapest, method to generate power — burning fossil fuels like coal, oil and gas — is the most destructive, causing pollution, global warming and massive environmental damage during extraction, transport, refining and use. And supplies are becoming more difficult to obtain and will eventually run out.

In contrast, wind power doesn't create pollution or global warming emissions, is affordable and will never run out. Improvements to power-generation capacity, efficiency and affordability will continue to boost its importance in the energy mix. But we must ensure turbines are installed in locations and using methods that reduce negative impacts on humans and wildlife.

Thanks to ongoing research and testing, wind power has come a long way in a relatively short time. Wildlife behaviour studies, along with technological improvements, have significantly reduced harm to birds and bats, and better siting has reduced impacts on other wildlife and habitat. Wind power generation is far safer for birds, bats and other animals than burning fossil fuels.

But what about wind power's effects on humans, a key argument used by opponents? Turbines, especially older ones, can be noisy, and some people find them unsightly — although I prefer the sight of wind farms to smokestacks and smog. Many problems can be addressed by locating quieter turbines far enough from human habitation to reduce impacts.

As for health effects, a recent comprehensive Health Canada study confirms previous research: Although people report being annoyed by wind turbines, there's no measurable association between wind turbine noise and sleep disturbance and disorders, illnesses and chronic health conditions, or stress and quality-of-life issues. A 2013 Australian report concluded people living near wind installations where anti-wind campaigns were active were more likely to report health problems, suggesting some issues may be psychological.

Health Canada says more research may be needed and we shouldn't downplay the annoyance factor. Again, improvements in technology and proper siting will help overcome many problems. And there's no doubt that fossil fuel development and use — from bitumen mining, deep-sea drilling, mountaintop removal and fracking to wasteful burning in single-user vehicles — are far more annoying and damaging to human health than wind power and other renewable-energy technologies.

Wind energy is also becoming more affordable and reliable. Denmark gets 34 per cent of its electricity from wind and Spain 21 per cent, making wind their largest electricity source. Portugal gets more than 20 per cent, Ireland 16 and Germany nine per cent. All have much higher population densities than Canada. Overall, wind power contributes about four per cent to worldwide electricity generation.

Improvements in grid and storage technologies also mean wind and other renewable technologies are increasingly feasible and desirable, especially as costs continue to drop. Investing in wind and other renewable energy is also good for jobs and the economy and can create greater stability in energy pricing than relying on volatile fossil fuel markets.

Total global investment in wind energy in 2012 was more than $80 billion, creating 670,000 jobs. According to a Blue Green Canada report, investing the $1.3 billion the oil industry gets in annual federal taxpayer subsidies in renewable energy and conservation could create 18,000 to 20,000 jobs, compared to fewer than 3,000 in oil and gas. And we can't ignore the many related cost impacts of fossil fuel development, from health-care to infrastructure.

To reduce global greenhouse gas emissions at a pace and scale that experts agree is necessary to avoid increasing catastrophic effects of global warming, we need a mix of renewable energy. Wind power will play a large role.

December 11, 2014

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Dec 23, 2014
10:30 AM

I am very sorry to see you dismissing the very serious harm being done to people being exposed to wind turbines. Wind energy is a marginal resource that is not saving the planet, but it is making a lot of money for investment bankers. Please take a fresh look at what you are promoting. I have supported your efforts in the pass but on the subject of wind energy you have veered off course.

Dec 17, 2014
6:41 PM

Governments and the Wind Industry continue to deny health impacts.

Health Canada only released a summary. Neither the data nor the results/paper were released, and the report has not been peer reviewed.

The Health Canada statement is listed here,

Note that Health Canada indicates that a significant fraction of respondents experienced “severe annoyance”, and that “WTN annoyance was found to be statistically related to several self-reported health effects including, but not limited to, blood pressure, migraines, tinnitus, dizziness, scores on the PSQI, and perceived stress.”

Here is a response to the Health Canada study. It is written by Carmen Krogh (former Health Canada employee, chief pharmacist for Canada) and Dr Robert McMurtry (Order of Canada, former Dean Western University Medical School, and former advisor to Health Canada). The commentary is on the Canadian Medical Association Journal web page:

Here is a link to my own research measuring Infra sound from Industrial Wind Turbines.

I join the many scientists and experts worldwide asking for a thorough investigation of wind turbine noise before more wind turbines are erected. In particular, I am looking to Health Canada for guidance on acceptable levels of infra sound exposure in our communities and workplaces. . Richard Mann Associate Professor (Computer Science) University of Waterloo.

Dec 14, 2014
9:17 AM

This is a quote from your article: “Health Canada says more research may be needed and we shouldn’t downplay the annoyance factor. Again, improvements in technology and proper siting will help overcome many problems. And there’s no doubt that fossil fuel development and use — from bitumen mining, deep-sea drilling, mountaintop removal and fracking to wasteful burning in single-user vehicles — are far more annoying and damaging to human health than wind power and other renewable-energy technologies.”.
It is an indication of how little you understand the siting problem as it relates to humans. Everyone agrees that renewable energy is good. But, you (and the wind farm industry) continue to ignore the harm that windfarms do to a community and to individuals unfortunate enough to have one or more huge wind turbines installed near their home. Yes, we are rural Ontario so, to our current government, our quality of life is not an issue. I would hope that the David Suzuki Foundation would be thinking a bit beyond the next vote, thinking about the lives of individuals whose lives have been so negatively impacted by huge wind turbines sited in completely inappropriate locations. The David Suzuki Foundation is a very influential organization and when you publish an article like this, that does not fairly represent the whole story, you start to sound like another industry organization lobbying the government. Please respect the quality of life of all forms of nature, including humans in rural Ontario.

Dec 13, 2014
12:31 AM

Has grid and storage technology reached the point where wind and other renewables could replace all other power generation? Until it can, we will still need a zero carbon base load, preferably cheap. The obvious answer is nuclear, but not current nuclear technologies, which obviously have problems, the main problem being long-lived waste storage. I’m talking about the future of nuclear power: already proven fast breeder uranium-238 and thorium reactor technology, neither of which have the waste storage problems that uranium-235 reactors have.

Dec 12, 2014
7:01 AM

Wind turbines would have greater acceptance if more of the job creation took place in the communities where they are situated. People are less annoyed by things they benefit from economically.

Some of the strongest opponents of wind power that I have heard from are people who have turbines in their vicinty, have invested their own funds on training in wind technology, and yet, claim they cannot find related employment.

Among the happier neighbors of wind farms worldwide are those who share in the profits. If provinces and municipalities made wind power a public utility rather than a private enterprise, they could ensure there is a connection between wind and local jobs.

Dec 11, 2014
5:36 PM

It never fails to amaze me that people as smart as David Suzuki continue to talk about alternative energy as if an uptake of it will avert the climate catastrophe we are now on. No matter how much we as individuals reduce our carbon footprint as long as the US military , the largest consumer of fossil fuels on the planet continues it’s project as part of the military industrial complex none of these actions will make a difference. Disclaimer, I have a solar powered house that is no more than pissing into the wind.

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