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An ill wind

The Dutch were among the first to embrace the green promise of turbines. Now they’re having second thoughts. Has wind energy lost its momentum?

By Lisa Van de Ven

It’s a brisk, breezy day and the view is green and flat long into the horizon. Trees line the roadway while farmers sow their fields beyond. I watch as I drive by, but it’s not farmers I’m looking for.

I’m travelling along the rural roads of Flevoland, the Netherland’s youngest province. It wasn’t officially formed until 1986, created on land that used to be below the sea. But I’m not here for that either. Not today.

Today, I’m chasing windmills.

This is Holland, after all, where windmills aren’t that hard to find. The Dutch may not have invented them, but the technology has thrived here, becoming a cultural icon. In Amsterdam, they’re on magnets and shaped into piggy banks, surrounded by wooden shoes and orange football jerseys — ready for tourists looking to part with a few Euros. Through the countryside, they beckon too, their squat brick buildings and rotating blades a much-recognized part of Holland’s landscape, grinding corn and wheat or draining water from the lowlands long before Flevoland was created.

The young province has become known for windmills of a different kind, though. I see them dotting fields and coastlines long before I hear them: looming storeys high, like soldiers standing in formation, their stems straight and narrow, sleek blades spinning with the wind. Getting closer, I watch their shadows flicker rhythmically over the car I’ve rented. The sound is clear: a slow beat in this quiet pastoral setting. Whoosh. Whoosh. Whoosh.

These are Holland’s wind turbines. They speckle the landscape here — not just in Flevoland, but also across the country. They’re not like the windmills, though. You won’t find them on souvenirs or postcards, and it’s the rare tourist who will come and take a look. But they’re likewise a symbol: not of the Netherlands’ past, but of its commitment to the future. That doesn’t mean people like them.

“When I started here, I was asked what I thought about wind energy, and I said, ‘It’s wonderful, of course,’” believing everyone else in the Netherlands felt the same way, remembers Karen Kooi-de Bruijne, policy officer for the Netherlands Wind Energy Association, speaking alongside her colleague Marije Arah in NWEA’s office in Utrecht. “But I was really naive, because [wind energy] has got a very negative tone in Holland . . . and it’s really hard to get that changed.”

Cyclists may crowd the bike lanes of Amsterdam. Homeowners may opt to install solar panels on their roofs. Despite that commitment to the environment, and even with Holland’s long history of harnessing the power of the wind, some communities here are protesting wind farms. And Dutch governments are listening. Already, the country has cut subsidies to existing offshore wind power projects; chances of future offshore projects going through are slim. (Although turbine opponents are generally more receptive to building wind turbines in the water — far enough away from homes to cause less disturbance — offshore wind farms are also much more expensive to construct and maintain.) What’s more, the provincial government of North Holland, home to Amsterdam and a popular wind farm location, put forward a motion in September to ban any future construction of wind farms in the province.




It’s a familiar story. In the United States, Australia and throughout Europe and the world, people are resisting wind farms with righteous resolve. Even as governments and environmental organizations pin their renewable energy hopes on wind power, special interest groups do what they can to stop wind farms from happening. Communities are left up in arms — some members coming out in support, even leasing their land for the turbines, while others protest vehemently. As Canada ramps up its wind energy efforts, it faces the same grassroots protests encountered by older programs worldwide. Is there anything we can learn from countries such as Holland? Should the naysayers be ignored — dismissed as just another example of a “not in my backyard” point of view — or should Canada do what North Holland has done, listening to the protests and cutting wind energy programs altogether? When it comes to wind energy, can something turn those NIMBYs into YIMBYs?

If you ask Mark Duchamp, the executive director of the European Platform Against Windfarms, the answer is no. The association represents groups across Europe that dispute wind energy, either because they don’t want it in their neighbourhood or because they don’t want it at all. For him, it’s not that traditional sources of energy are good — he just doesn’t see wind energy as the right solution. “When somebody is sick and when you administer a remedy that makes them more sick, the first thing you need to do is stop giving them that remedy,” he says.

There are health issues that haven’t been properly examined, he adds, but the group’s resistance to wind energy goes further than that, to aesthetic and noise concerns and to the question of whether it’s an effective energy source at all. Governments, he says, would be better served by spending their money researching new forms of renewable energy: “[Wind farms] are a redundant investment.”

Wind energy is clearly not the easy issue Kooi-de Bruijne thought it would be when she joined NWEA. Still, Holland has committed to increasing its share of renewable energy to 14 percent by 2020, part of the European Union’s overall goals to combat climate change. As of 2010, the country had reached only 3.8 percent, but wind energy was a clear part of those efforts: there are now 2,000 wind turbines throughout the Netherlands. Globally, the World Wildlife Fund estimates that wind power could contribute a quarter of all energy by 2050. But in order to reach those goals, communities need to get on board.

Why aren’t they already? Frits van den Berg has focused his research on exactly that question. Working with the Dutch University of Groningen, he co-wrote a report studying community perceptions of Dutch wind farms. Van den Berg and his colleagues wanted to know why, even though there was general public support for sustainable energy, actual plans for wind farms were met with such vehement opposition. They surveyed 725 Dutch residents, all of whom lived within 2.5 kilometres of a wind turbine. Fourteen percent of respondents benefited economically in some way from the turbines — they either owned them or owned shares.

The study’s most telling finding? Those respondents who personally benefited in some way were less likely overall to report negative feelings. “I didn’t expect the answer to be that clear,” van den Berg says. “The effect here was very strong because there was virtually no annoyance in people that were economically benefiting, although usually they lived closer to the turbines so they had more sound.”

That finding itself could prove useful in determining the best way to introduce wind farms into a community. While there will always be people who are more disturbed by them than others, community involvement in the process may be the answer, van den Berg says — if neighbours feel invested somehow, or benefit financially, they may be more likely to have a positive attitude.

A case in point: Germany. Though opposition is now starting to grow, this approach has worked in the past. “Germany was very early in the development of wind energy,” van den Berg says. “Many people in Germany are very opposed to nuclear energy, so they wanted to have an alternative . . . so it began as a grassroots movement in Germany, something from the people.”

It’s the difference between a top-down approach — where a business or government brings in a wind farm — and a bottom-up one, where the community itself feels invested and involved from the beginning. When communities have a say, they tend to feel less helpless and more empowered. “What you learn is that if people also have advantages, not just disadvantages, then it might give them another view,” van den Berg says.

With that in mind, van den Berg is currently focusing his attention on Canadian wind farms, as a consultant in a new Health Canada research project that will look into the potential health effects of wind turbines (for details, see “Health effects: a study,” page 25). And Canada, some interested parties say, is already stuck in the top-down approach that has caused citizens elsewhere to refuse this renewable resource.

The road is empty, the only sign of motion a cat scurrying for the bushes and a cyclist riding through a tiny town. No motion, that is, except the synchronized spinning of the wind turbines that crowd the horizon. I’m in Ontario now, a short ferry ride across the St. Lawrence River from the city of Kingston, busy and bustling in plain view from the quiet road I’m driving.

This is Wolfe Island, site of the second-largest wind farm in Canada. It’s also been one of the most discussed. In July 2008, construction crews arrived to install 86 turbines on land leased from 47 separate local landowners, and to build new roads that would support trucks carrying the heavy parts through. The neighbours who watched those trucks drive past — many of whom measure their history on the island in generations rather than years — were split on the project from the start.

“This was a very tight-knit community,” says Mark Mattson, an environmental lawyer and the president of Lake Ontario Waterkeeper. He grew up spending summers on Wolfe Island; his family has owned property here for over a century. “It divided the community, and that was something I wish I didn’t have to experience. And although the island now in some ways has been slowly healing itself, there are still those conflicts, those divisions.”

While Mattson is a proponent of wind energy itself, he says the high-handed approach used to introduce the project on the island helped caused the rift in the local community. At the time, neighbours were discussing a smaller community-owned wind farm that would provide energy for the island. When the Canadian Hydro Developers’ project (since taken over by TransAlta) was introduced instead, some residents chose to work with the company, leasing out their land for the wind turbines, while others took umbrage, feeling the project would reduce property values and ruin their peaceful island existence. For Mattson, due process wasn’t in place to listen to these disparate views and take them into consideration.

“I was pushing for a hearing . . . but of course we failed,” he says. “I think to this day, Wolfe Island is a cautionary tale for those who favour wind and environmentalists who thought that because it was a good idea they could shortcut or bypass the public process. And I think they’ve learned that you just can’t take shortcuts when you’re moving forward with projects of this size and nature.”

Canada’s wind energy efforts are still relatively new compared to those of countries like Holland; while the first Canadian wind farm, in Alberta, was built in the late 1990s, wind energy here didn’t hit its stride until the new millennium. Canada now has just over 1,000 turbines nationwide, capable of producing 5,903 megawatts, or approximately two percent of our energy demands. As in Holland, wind energy is regulated provincially, which means that the Wolfe Island project was part of Ontario’s Green Energy Act, created to expand renewable energy generation in the province. A lack of public review and consultation, Mattson says, is the “Achilles heel” of the act: instead of “raising the bar” to require any new energy projects, including nuclear and coal, to go through a public review process, the bar was lowered so that green sources of energy didn’t need that same due diligence. “We haven’t had an environmental assessment in over a decade here in Ontario. The federal government has gutted the environmental assessment federally,” he says. “More and more of these projects go forward without public review.”

Peggy Smith is another Wolfe Island resident who found herself caught up in the battle that ensued over the turbines. While she understands that wind farm projects will always affect some community members, she thinks providers should be able to give a little too. “There needs to be a creative response to these unpredictable but real impacts,” she says. “It is too expensive for a company to simply turn off or move a tower, but there could be some mitigation in the evening or sleep hours, or [during certain] times of day or wind conditions.”

Whatever the answer, getting the process right matters, says Zoe Caron, climate and energy specialist for WWF Canada. “Renewable energy will not succeed without the support of communities — nor should it.”

The Canadian Wind Energy Association seems to have recognized that as well. The industry group, which represents wind energy companies across the country, has created a list of best practices on public consultation and community dialogue. While the guidelines aren’t binding, they do offer some advice for starting a conversation with community members, such as when to engage, how to engage and the principles of good communication, says the association’s president, Robert Hornung.

“We want to ensure that when discussion starts in communities about projects, that they’re as well informed as possible,” Hornung says. “The industry also has a responsibility to be proactive in terms of reaching out and engaging with communities, and doing that early and doing that often — not just hearing concerns, but listening and responding to them.”

Canada should take its cue from the nations that seem to be doing wind energy right, suggests Caron: places like Germany or Denmark, for example, where community-based wind farms are more prevalent, and are sometimes even encouraged through tax cuts and other incentives. “I think that that’s something that across Canada we can improve on. Ontario’s started to look at community power and has set aside a certain amount of energy for community power, both for wind and solar,” she says.

What Canada could also use, she adds, is a third-party body to continually evaluate legislation and community reaction, and to integrate that feedback into new projects. All energy projects have some impact on the environment and on people, Caron says, “and that’s something that’s always a huge concern. But I think really looking at the full picture is necessary, and also looking at the global picture of where we want to go and getting away from unsustainable sources of energy.”

Back in Holland, Frits van den Berg tells me about the people he encountered in his research on Dutch wind farms. Two main groups stood out, he says. The first are the farmers who house wind turbines on their properties for a fee. “Their land is what they base their income on. They want to profit from the land, and it’s not easy for the farmer to earn a decent living,” he says. “The other party that I can clearly distinguish . . . are people who have come to the countryside because they enjoy the peace and quiet there, they enjoy the green area. For them, the wind turbines spoil the area. And I think you can understand that too.”

It’s not that either interest is right or wrong, he points out; they just look at it with different eyes. “It would help maybe if people could come together and talk about it, to see that you can experience the landscape quite differently,” he says almost wistfully. “I don’t know if that matters really in the end, but it would be nice.”

In the offices of the NWEA, Karen Kooi-de Bruijne and Marije Arah look for their own reasons for the blowback that seems to arise whenever a wind farm is proposed. “In Holland, people . . . think an individual is not capable of creating a force against multinationals, and energy companies in the Netherlands are very huge and have a lot of power,” says Kooi-de Bruijne.

They’re talking about Holland, but their words would ring true in Canada or any number of countries. With shorelines in the distance, farmers tending fields and wind turbines spinning in the background, Flevoland could be Wolfe Island. Starting that conversation, letting those individuals have a voice in the process, is a theme that comes up in both locations.

The two women from the Netherlands Wind Energy Association let their conversation turn to the windmills of the past: the mills the people love enough to put on postcards and magnets. The mills that have spun through Holland’s history. People don’t see today’s big turbines as a natural progression from those beloved windmills. Maybe it’s because they’re more industrial, less pastoral. Or, surmises Kooi-de Bruijne, they’re not as cute.

Nobody in Holland or anywhere else can dispute that.  


'Despite Holland's commitment to the environment, and even with its long history of harnessing the power of the wind, some communities here are protesting wind farms.'

Sidebar: Health effects study


Can wind farms cause adverse health effects? The Canadian government wants to find out. In July, Health Canada announced a study in collaboration with Statistics Canada to look at the potential health effects associated with wind turbines. The Wind Turbine Noise and Health Study will target 2,000 homes near eight to 12 wind farm facilities across the country. Results are expected in 2014.

While studies on the health effects of wind turbines have come to varying conclusions, neighbours living near wind farms have continued to report health concerns, including sleep disturbance, stress, headaches, tinnitus and nausea. Sufferers usually blame these problems on noise disturbances, low-frequency noise and the flickering shadows of the turbines.

But Dutch researcher Frits van den Berg has another potential source. In his study WINDFARMperception: Visual and Acoustic Impact of Wind Turbine Farms on Residents, van den Berg and colleagues Eja Pedersen, Jelte Bouma and Roel Bakker surveyed people living near wind farms, and included questions related to health. The only significant health effects reported were sleep disturbance and psychological distress, van den Berg says — but those effects weren’t directly related to noise levels. “They were related to annoyance.”

Why would the most annoyed feel the worst health effects? It could be that people who sleep lightly or poorly already awaken easily in the night, so a new noise source would disturb their sleep further, the research surmises. But the fact that the initial waking didn’t directly correspond to the noise levels pointed at something else — that the annoyance itself was getting in the way of sleep. “Even in the night, sometimes you’re still mad about it,” he says.

It’s an angle researchers haven’t examined fully, van den Berg argues. “I think in the studies where health effects are reported — serious health effects — it’s attributed entirely to the wind farms, and that has not been proven.”

—L.V.

Lisa Van de Ven is a freelance writer in Toronto.
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