Alberta community concerns about wind farms echo familiar challenges of Canada’s energy transition

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Chris Blumhagen was working on his organic farm in central Alberta when Capital Power called him to sell him the idea of ​​installing a wind turbine on his land.Blumhagen says the company representative pushed hard, telling him his neighbors were already on board with a plan to build 74 turbines in the 100 square kilometer area and if he didn’t connect, something would be missing. .

So Blumhagen signed for $ 10 and a pledge more to come once the turbines started spinning, only to learn later that many of his neighbors hadn’t done the same.

“They basically cheated on me,” he said.

That was in 2015. Since then, Blumhagen and his neighbors have banded together to oppose the project, alleging dishonest tactics on the part of the company to promote the project to residents and risks to their health, land and their livelihoods if it materializes.

Edmonton-based Capital Power, which operates coal, natural gas and wind power facilities in Alberta, and the Alberta Utilities Commission say all residents’ concerns have been addressed.

This is the view of the rural front-line of Canada’s energy transition – a shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy that a majority of Albertans say they support but few cities across the country will have to tackle head-on.

Not opposed to wind power

This will be left to people like Blumhagen and his neighbors, who live on a strip of Alberta prairie about 200 kilometers outside of Edmonton, wedged between the Battle River Valley to the north and the Paintearth Coulee to the south.

Locals call it ‘the island’ and a handful of families have lived there for over a century, farming and raising together.

Chris Blumhagen has been approached by Capital Power about installing a wind turbine on his land and claims the company has misled him about local support for the project. (Erin Collins / CBC)

Along with agriculture, power generation has long been a part of daily life in Paintearth County. The region first saw the dawn of the coal industry and then the rise of the oil and gas industries in Alberta. Oil wells still pull black gold from the earth here, and a coal mine and power station are still operating in the area.

Blumhagen says the experience is why most residents are not against the idea of ​​wind power or other forms of renewable energy.

“The wind has its place,” he said.

But Blumhagen says Capital Power, which already operates a wind farm in the area near the village of Halkirk, has not taken the time to listen to residents’ concerns.

Locals like Gérard Fetaz, whose family has lived here since 1904. Fetaz’s concerns about the project are easy to see. He has a small runway on his property which he uses to pilot his vintage 1957 Cessna. He used to make money dusting in the area, although these days he flies just for love. from him.

But that passion can be anchored in earnest if Capital Power’s wind farm is built. Plans called for a turbine just 650 meters from its airstrip, despite Transport Canada’s recommendations that the turbines be at least four kilometers from a runway.

Gerard Fetaz is concerned that a wind farm close to his home in Paintearth County could prevent him from piloting his plane. (Erin Collins / CBC)

“It’s not sure,” Fetaz said. “Someone’s hitting a turbine, or getting caught in the turbulence or something – you could hit someone’s house.” ”

He says he tried to contact Capital Power to find a different location for the turbine, but says “they’re not at all interested in talking about it. “

24 conditions placed on the project

Capital Power did not agree to an interview with CBC News, but in a statement, the company denied ignoring residents’ concerns and said it would act with “integrity, strive to address stakeholder concerns and would comply with all laws and regulations governing the project development process. ”

But Fetaz and others in the region say the rush to embrace sustainable energy has caused their concerns to be ignored. Since the project was given the green light in 2018, local residents have challenged its approval on multiple levels, including in the Alberta Court of Appeals and, more recently, in the county, to no avail.

The province is moving ahead with wind power, with the Alberta Electric System Operator, which oversees Alberta’s power grid, predicting that the amount of wind power produced in Alberta will double over the next decade.

The Alberta Utilities Commission, the regulator that approved the Capital Power project, says it’s in the public interest.

CUA’s Jim Law says every effort has been made to accommodate residents, including imposing 24 conditions on project approval, which the company must meet in order to complete it.

Among them, the commitment to move the turbine close to the Fetaz runway up to 50 meters and to ensure that the environmental impacts are mitigated.

Katrina Smith and her family play in their Paintearth County backyard. Three wind turbines will be visible from their property if the planned wind farm is built. (Erin Collins / CBC)

“These are in place to directly address some of the stakeholder concerns about the project, and they range from airport considerations to wildlife and noise,” Law said.

Law said that unlike oil and gas developments, no one can be forced to have a wind turbine on their land in Alberta,

“There is no forced entry. It’s a voluntary agreement, ”he said.

Law says the system is put in place to ensure that the public interest is served and the concerns of landowners are respected and that it generally works.

‘Backlash’ en Ontario

This is not how Katrina Smith sees it. Three turbines will be visible from Smith’s house, which is just down the road from those of his parents and brothers. Smith likes the idea of ​​renewable energy; her house is completely off-grid, powered by a solar panel in her backyard.

But she is concerned about the impact of a large wind farm on sensitive wetlands near her home and the community in which she grew up. She sees a push to meet the green energy needs of urban Canada at the back of rural communities like hers.

“There has to be mutual respect. There has to be an appreciation of what already exists, ”she said. “There has to be a goal for what we can maintain and support for the future. ”

Dayna Scott says similar concerns about the location of turbines and their impact on residents and the environment were raised in rural Ontario over a decade ago, when that province embraced energy. wind turbine.

Scott, who holds a research chair in environmental law and justice at York University in Toronto, says residents have not been adequately consulted in Ontario and that failure to consider local concerns caused “a huge backlash in rural communities.”

Scott is concerned that the repetition of these mistakes in other parts of Canada will slow down the shift to green energy.

This situation may already be playing out on “the island”. Local opposition and a sluggish economy mean the future of the wind farm is in limbo. Capital Power has yet to begin construction on the project, which it has until December 2022 to complete.

This is good news for many residents of the region except for Canada’s transition to a more low-carbon future.

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