Thursday 2 June 2016

Wind Energy in Saskatchewan: Opportunities and Challenges

Columbia River wind farm

In November 2015, SaskPower committed to doubling the percentage of renewable electricity generation capacity in Saskatchewan from 25 to 50 percent by 2030. The Saskatchewan Ministry of Environment has supported this initiative by developing draft Guidelines for Saskatchewan Wind Energy Projects as well as a map of proposed avoidance zones to assist project developers in minimizing the impact on biodiversity and to allay public concerns over potential environmental impacts.

The Ministry will be meeting with environmental organizations over the next few weeks to solicit their input on the draft guidelines. Individuals are also invited to submit comments on the draft guidelines to the Ministry by mid-June.

Outlined below are additional thoughts and resources that you may find useful when reviewing the guidelines and drafting your response to the Ministry of Environment.

Energy Alternatives 
Saskatchewan has the highest per capita greenhouse gas emissions in Canada, and total emissions over the past 24 years have increased faster than those in any other province. This is due in large part to the oil and gas industry and the province’s reliance on coal for electrical generation.

As James Glennie, who has worked in the wind industry for over 15 years points out, there are huge benefits to be gained from replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy sources. “A single wind turbine will annually avoid thousands of tonnes of coal being burned and that means avoiding the emissions, to our air and landfill, of large quantities of greenhouse gases, sulphuric acid, and toxins such as mercury, arsenic, lead, chromium, and manganese. That means less asthma, healthier children, and a better environment,” he says.

James suggests it might be useful to have something in the guidelines that discusses energy options and what wind energy will be replacing to help the public to consider the big picture in terms of both opportunities and challenges.

For example, Nova Scotia Energy’s website provides an upbeat, positive approach to change. Titled Transforming Nova Scotia’s Energy Future, it says, “Our relationship with energy is changing. It has to. World fuel prices and environmental concerns are driving the need. So is economic opportunity. . . . On this site you’ll learn how we are changing the way we buy, develop, and use energy. You’ll discover how all of us – from individuals to businesses – will benefit from the growth in our new energy economy. And you may even find ways to make some changes in the way you use energy that create powerful results of your own.”

Community Involvement
Experience in Ontario and other jurisdictions has demonstrated the importance of community involvement. “If wind farm siting guidelines are developed with limited community input, they are at greater risk of running into problems,” James says. “Community ownership of wind farms should also be given serious consideration.”

Community-owned wind projects are widespread in Europe. In 2015, wind supplied 42% of Germany’s electricity and 13% of Denmark’s. More than 50% of all renewable energy in both countries was owned by individuals, farmers, communities, or municipalities.

Community ownership is rare in Canada where the focus has been on large-scale projects in rural areas. It may, however, point the way to overcoming community opposition by ensuring that local residents have a significant say in how the wind farms are built and a chance to own a sizeable portion of the projects. Examples of Canadian community wind farms can be found in British Columbia, Ontario, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Quebec, although there are no examples of communities with a majority stake.

Wildlife Protection 
The Ministry’s draft guidelines include a map of proposed avoidance zones, “areas which are deemed to be ones of particular ecological significance which wind developers would be advised to avoid.” The map proposes a 5 km setback from national and provincial parks, migratory bird sanctuaries and important bird areas, the Western Hemispheric Shorebird Reserve Network, ecological reserves and national wildlife areas, Last Mountain Lake, and the North and South Saskatchewan River. There is no setback recommended for fish and wildlife development fund areas, conservation easement lands, wildlife habitat protection lands, and the sage grouse emergency protection order area.

“Some in the wind industry are claiming the extensive Wind Turbine Avoidance Zones are, at this stage, a bad idea since they remove, possibly without justification, multiple potential wind farm locations from the mix,” says James Glennie. “My view is that the majority of the province is outside the avoidance zones and there is plenty of room for development. It’s better to be cautious initially since this allows the Ministry, as it gains experience, to change the boundaries as justified by the evidence.”

Trevor Herriot, along with a number of environmental organizations, has expressed concern over the proposed wind energy project north of Chaplin Lake. Herriot points out that the project will destroy a large area of native grassland disturbing the nesting and hunting grounds of ferruginous hawks, an endangered species. In addition, the project will be the minimum proposed distance (4.5 km) from Chaplin Lake, an Important Bird Area supporting a large number of shorebirds, especially during spring migration.

It should be noted that there are a great many factors that have a negative impact on wild birds and a comprehensive plan of action for addressing all of them, rather than simply those involving wind energy, would be most welcome.
Technology may, at some stage, alleviate some of the risks to wildlife. A team of Spanish developers is promoting a windless turbine “that promises to be more efficient, less visually intrusive, and safer for birdlife than conventional turbines.”

The government usually hands over responsibility for the initial environmental impact assessment and ongoing monitoring to the site developers. Trevor Herriot questions the legitimacy of this approach. Referring to the Chaplin Lake project, he says:

“The proponent, Algonquin, will want to hire its own consulting engineering company to do the monitoring – someone like Stantec – because they know that a consultant they hire is unlikely to find any data that would require them to shut down or move turbines. That kind of self-regulation, with poorly designed data-gathering models and often unqualified researchers, is unacceptable in a development this controversial. 

“If the province really wants to show us that they are doing their best to protect the bats and birds, and finding ways to site wind projects properly, they should make the proponent secure truly independent monitoring by researchers from a university or some other third party organization.” 

Planning for the Future 
As with so many of the environmental issues facing us today, there are no easy solutions. Increasing our renewable energy sources is just a first step in lessening our human footprint, but it’s a valuable one.

Do take a look at the proposed Guidelines for Saskatchewan Wind Energy Projects and provide the Ministry with your feedback.