Wind power problems: “What are they talking about?”

I never assume anyone knows where my hometown of Mitchell’s Bay (population: 350) is, unless they like to fish or hunt or boat, or come from deep in southwestern Ontario.

So I was quite surprised when, on a plane to western Canada earlier this week, the 30-something man beside me from B.C. nodded in acknowledgement when he asked me where I was from, and I told him “around Chatham.”

It further turned out he knew the Mitchell’s Bay area. He’s a wind turbine technician, and he’d been working on wind energy installations there and in farming-intensive Dover Township, installing quieting devices on the end of turbine blades that are supposed to make them less offensive to people who think they’re noisy.

As we chatted the way people sometimes do on planes, I came to learn he doesn’t get much involved in the politics or controversy of wind energy, mainly because he doesn’t believe it.

Even though his latest activity was a response to some of the most popular complaints about turbines – that is, the “whapping” noise made by the blades that is said to make some people ill – he doesn’t think it’s a widespread malady.

“When I first started this job I read some of the things people said about the problems caused by wind energy, but as I went on in the job, I asked myself ‘What are they talking about?’ I don’t see those same things at all,” he said.

Maybe you’d expect that kind of perspective from someone whose wages are tied to the wind energy industry.

But over the course of the two-hour–plus flight, I got the impression that if he thought there was malice afoot, he would have said so. Overall employment attitudes and patterns of his demographic tell us its members don’t tolerate spoonfuls, let alone buckets, of corporate lies or deceit.

And I was further stuck by with his grasp of what wind energy income can mean to some farmers, and the value of a diversified portfolio during tough times. It’s not going to make up for crop losses – for example, the damage inflicted by white mould on soybeans, Ontario’s biggest field crop, is conservatively estimated at $20-$30 million this year – but the few thousand dollars farmers receive from each wind energy lease still helps.

All this is particularly timely for a couple of reasons.

First, summer breezes have turned into autumn winds. And maybe it’s coincidental, but it seems renewable energy discussions have intensified as this natural phenomenon kicked in.

Second, there’s a growing concern over climate change in the farm sector, and the role of renewable energy. The Ontario Federation of Agriculture has made it an imperative and wants more emphasis on support for developing renewable energy from agricultural sources.

For their part, University of Guelph researchers are developing new varieties of plants and crop protection products geared towards climate change, varieties that are hardier and more flexible and that can stand up to an assortment of conditions. For example, the big hit this year from white mould was not caused by too much heat or drought, conditions often associated with climate change – rather, the culprit was too much rain, and cooler temperatures. Only history will truly determine whether or not this is a textbook definition of climate change, but there’s no question farmers think something is happening, and researchers are trying to help them deal with it, whatever it is.

Finally, the annual meeting of the Canadian Wind Energy Association takes place next week in Montreal. About 1,500 attendees are expected. One of the things they’ll hear about is the growth of the sector in Canada. For example, in Ontario, a huge installation is getting ready to come on-stream near Shelburne.

News of new wind energy installations are not well-received in some parts of our country. But I’d say when it comes to wind power, the momentum is with the industry. Like my seatmate en route to western Canada, the wind energy association is determined to this renewable resource a meaningful part of the Canadian energy complement.

Check out Owen’s column from last week — Innovation is what will get agriculture through interesting times

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