Wind Rush

We have a new 90th Parallel Productions documentary airing on CBC Doc Zone, February 7 at 9:00 pm in Canada. We spent two years making this film about wind turbines and how they can make people sick. A lot of people are skeptical–so was I.

When you’re driving north from Kincardine to Inverhuron you can see a skyline of red warning lights atop the wind turbines flashing against the night sky. This is farmland. There is a lot of dairy in Bruce County, and even more beef. And over the last four years there’s been a lot of wind farming, too.

The proliferation of wind turbines has been creating a level of citizen activism seldom seen in rural Ontario. At first the arrival of the wind farms made a lot of sense. Using turbines to generate electricity was already working well in the west, in places like Alberta, California and Texas. And wind turbines had sprung up all over Europe. In Ontario they were willing to pay farmers to put windmills on their land. The wind was blowing anyway. It was like free money.

But it’s never that easy. Grass roots groups started getting angry at the turbines and the government and pretty much anything to do with harvesting the wind. I decided to look into a story about wind energy not being as green as advertised. These people had been accused of NIMBY-ism and I figured they were annoyed at the turbines because they spoiled the view. When I saw their marches on the news, I admit I was skeptical.

Full disclosure: my wife’s family is from Bruce County and my mother in law had been upset about how the wind industry landed there, with 30 some-odd turbines down near Ripley and 110 up near Underwood. I didn’t put a lot of thought into the complaints—I had grown up on a farm myself and I saw merit in getting some extra income from a wind lease. Also, people were saying the turbines were making them sick and I just couldn’t see how that could be so.

But it didn’t take long for me to realize that there were problems here. It started with Ontario’s 2009 Green Energy Act. Premier Dalton McGuinty wanted his legacy to include the closing of coal-fired power plants. Laudable enough. So he had energy minister George Smitherman bring in an act that would distribute rich subsidies to companies who put up wind turbines and installed solar panels to replace coal. And in order to expedite the switchover to greener power, the provincial government opted to bypass municipalities with the approval process. If you’re a wind developer, that’s great: the province makes you jump through its hoops but at least you don’t have to deal with small town councils and years of delays when it comes to building your wind farm.

But if you are one of those small town mayors or councilors, or a private land owner living next to someone who has signed a wind lease and allowed a 30 story turbine to go up within earshot of your house, you’re out of luck. No recourse. Nothing.

There was some name-calling in the press that those people just didn’t want to see turbines from their backyards and there was some truth to that. The sight of a giant turbine from your patio can bring down your land value. And if you live out in the country those turbines aren’t going up for you—they are sending the bulk of their power to the rapidly growing urban centres. As Warren Mabee from Queen’s University says, the wind farms were turning Ontario farmland into “energy suburbs” for the cities.  Other people were a little more blunt: they said this was the industrialization of rural space.

But with a growing population and an increasing need for power the simple fact is that the electricity has to come from somewhere. The bulk of power in Ontario is generated by nuclear plants (including one in Bruce County) and the turbines at Niagara Falls. Wind was supposed to help top up the supply. But then a lot of people started claiming that wind had never lived up to it’s billing anywhere in the world. It seldom produces five per cent of what the utility needs and to make things worse, it’s intermittent, churning out power only about 25% of the time. And it’s really expensive.

But those weren’t the angles I was chasing. This business about them making people sick turned out to be more and more fascinating. I had a conversation over the phone with Dr. Hazel Lynn, the medical officer of health for Bruce and Grey Counties, the heart of Ontario wind farming country. Lynn said that a large number of patients were seeing their GPs about a surprisingly consistent checklist of symptoms, from headaches to nausea to sleeplessness. And in each case the sick feelings started once the nearby turbines were switched on.

“We had one of the experts from the Ontario Agency for Health Promotion Protection who came up,” said Lynn. “He’s in charge of their environmental division and he said he’d never seen anything like it either — that so many people were upset by these things. And very consistent symptoms.”

I checked on-line and people in the UK, New Zealand, the US and Japan were all saying they felt the same way. They complained of loud whooshing noises stopping and starting through the night.

One of the worst affected people I met—and one of the most outspoken—was retired nurse Norma Schmidt. Her 19-acre home is surrounded by that 110-turbine farm near Underwood.

“A different times they sound like different things,” says Norma. “They can sound like a jet engine. They can sound like a swoosh, swoosh, swoosh and stop. And you’ve got to realize if you hear like a sound swoosh, swoosh – that’s okay. But if you hear a swoosh, swoosh and stop and a swoosh, swoosh and stop. This is torture!”

For people like Norma sleeplessness was carrying on for weeks—months. In some cases it was years. Some families broke apart and others picked up and moved. Stories started floating out of wind developers paying off particularly noisy complainers to leave home with signed gag orders so they wouldn’t talk to their local papers anymore.

But some scientists were starting to do research into how the low-level noise from turbines gets into the inner ear and how wind companies weren’t measuring the audible noise levels properly. There are studies now about how arbitrary the rules are for setting the turbines back from where people live and how sleeplessness can lead to depression, heart disease and diabetes.

“The real question,” said one of those scientists, Dr. Michael Nissenbaum, “is do wind turbines cause noise? Yes. Do they cause sleep deprivation? Yes. Is sleep deprivation a problem? Of course it is. Well, therefore, we have a completely plausible chain of causation here.”

But the province stuck to a 2010 report from it’s own medical officer of health, who said there was no evidence in the scientific literature that proved wind farms could be detrimental to the people. What the report failed to point out, however, was that no new science had been commissioned to make sure the large turbines were safe in and among rural populations. And this was the part that shocked me: Ontario went from ten turbines ten years ago to 1200 last year without any real research into potential health issues. Meanwhile the machines are getting bigger and bigger—and louder and louder. New leases are signed, new wind farms approved with no abatement in sight. It just keeps happening.

That’s when I realized I had a story that was bigger than just the effectiveness of wind energy. You can like it or you can hate it—that isn’t the point. What this is about is government and business rushing ahead with new technology without ever making sure it’s safe. A car manufacturer would never get away with releasing a new model without extensive safety tests. Same goes for food, appliances—anything. And yet these machines just kept going up, and up, and up.

“We need more information about what is this hazard so we can mitigate it,” says Dr. Hazel Lynn. “I’m not against green energy at all. But I don’t think we should be injuring people. We need to know who those people are and protect them like we do on any other hazard that we know about.”

Last year the Ontario government finally did commission a study into the health effects of turbines. Then the federal government said it was doing its own research. But the first of those papers won’t be out till 2017. And there is no moratorium on wind farms between now and then (the Ontario Federation of Agriculture has called for such a moratorium).

“I think we got into a situation where no one said, ‘Stop, let’s wait a minute,’ says Michael Nissenbaum. “These things are very large machines, they’re really big industrial complexes and maybe we should look at them with the same scrutiny we look at factories being set up or airports or new highways cutting through areas, that we should look at the local impacts and design appropriately before we just license these things up for construction.”

The adherence to the dream of green energy can be very much like a religion. People feel if they believe deeply enough the perfect clean future for electricity will come true. They didn’t want to believe it was as bad as all that in Ontario.

Wind turbines’ effect of human health is not issue in the west where there is more open space than Ontario. They are built farther away from houses. But as I worked away on this story I heard a number of people ask why wind was such a problem here when it was working so well in Europe, where there is less space? It’s a good point, so I went to Denmark, because the Danes are the pioneers of modern wind farming.

The Danes are the pioneers of modern wind farming. Vestas, one of the world’s largest turbine and blade manufacturers, is headquartered there. And the German energy giant Siemens builds wind turbines in Denmark, too. Until the advent of wind energy Denmark had to get 100% of its power from coal, which it had to import. There are no waterfalls or roaring rivers in Denmark and it is a non-nuclear country. So wind made sense.

The first turbines that went up back in the 90s were small, measured in kilowatts rather than megawatts. They didn’t make much noise and they made the Danes feel good about how they were producing their power. But Denmark is a small country and space was at a premium, so they started putting the turbines offshore about a decade ago. We went and filmed at the Horns Rev offshore wind farm, 30 kilometres from the Danish coast, out in the North Sea. It’s pretty impressive—the wind is better out there and the power generation more consistent. Siemens and Vestas started making each new generation of turbines bigger than the last one and you could see how huge they had gotten out there.

Offshore wind farming was a great solution, but it was also expensive. The wind developers realized they could put the new big machines up on shore for half the price of setting them out in the sea. So that’s what they did. And now there are 177 anti wind groups in Denmark, filled with people complaining of the exact same health issues that popped up in Ontario.

“The CEO from Vestas called Denmark a full-scale laboratory for wind turbines,” says Dr. Christian Buhl, a scientist from Arhus who does work on sleep deprivation and disease. “That’s crazy. That’s like treating the Danes as lab rats.”

My film is done now (airing on CBC Doc Zone Thursday February 7 at 9:00) and the way I see it, the Ontario government basically figured that if wind worked in places like the North Sea and the Canadian Prairies there should be no issues with bringing the exact same technology here. They never took into account the population density in rural Ontario, and the increasing size of the turbines.

So is it real? Do the turbines make people sick? Well, put yourself in the position of anyone forced to live next door to a wind farm in Ontario. You’ve invested a huge chunk of your life earnings into a rural property, then someone comes along and puts up a giant turbine. There is nothing you can do about it. Your property value drops. The anxiety, added to the sense of helplessness and the lack of recourse, and then the noise: all of it leads to endless sleepless nights. And that is a serious health risk.

“I think that there are people that are really suffering from having the presence of these windmills all around their homes or around their farms,” says Warren Mabee. “And whether it’s psychological or whether it’s really physical, does it really matter? I mean, there are people that are not responding well to it.”

And then there’s Norma Schmidt. She lived at her country place for 35 years but now she’s left. She won’t sell because she doesn’t want to foist it off on another family that might get sick too. Also, she’s stubborn. But she didn’t ask for this. It happened to her, like a train wreck or a car accident. The big difference, though, is that she can’t legally hold anyone accountable.

“If we were giving a medication to a person and there were coming with all of these symptoms, the regulators would be saying, ‘Stop giving people these medications.’ In a flash doctors would be saying, ‘Stop taking that medication. It’s making you too ill.’”