Sustainable Energy Lecture: Green Energy Blues: Making Sense of Wind Energy Controversies in Ontario

Speaker: Dr. Stephen Hill

Date: October 23, 2012

About the Speaker

Dr. Stephen Hill is an Associate Professor of Environmental & Resource Studies at Trent University in Peterborough, with education and professional background spanning the fields of engineering, biology, environmental policy and corporate strategy. He was the 2011 winner of the Symons Award for Excellence in Teaching, and the 2011 CMHC Award for Excellence in Education.

About the Sustainable Energy Lecture Series

This presentation is one of an ongoing series of lectures on aspects of sustainable energy which are part of the Master’s program in Sustainable Energy, organized by the Carleton Research Unit in Innovation, Science and Environment (CRUISE) and the Carleton Sustainable Energy Research Centre (CSERC). The lecture series was established in 2010, and since then has covered diverse topics ranging from examinations of the sustainability of nuclear power, to Aboriginal energy projects in Canada, and the ability to catalyze action on climate change.

All figures stated in this document are as presented by Dr. Hill during his presentation.


The Ontario government’s Green Energy and Economy Act, passed in 2009, has created the policy and economic conditions needed for the rapid deployment of renewable energy and related supporting infrastructure. It included a feed-in-tariff that guarantees investors in renewable energy projects a guaranteed premium price for green electricity fed into the grid. Some of the projects supported by the financial incentives however have resulted in community opposition. This opposition has had voting consequences in provincial elections, hindering the political will behind such energy initiatives.

Dr. Hill’s lecture reviewed the genealogy of this controversy drawing upon various documents, media sources, interviews, and observations , situating the discussion at a conceptual intersection between place-based environmentalism and climate-motivated energy innovations. The presentation explored the reasons why this opposition should have been expected, what to anticipate going forward, and what might be done to facilitate a less polarized social and political discussion of wind energy deployment and its effects on rural communities. It was emphasized that Ontario wind energy proponents and opponents must be willing to establish a meaningful dialogue about issues on both sides of the debate, mainly involving climate change mitigation and impacts on landscapes and rural senses of “place”.

Current State of Wind Development and Opposition in Ontario

Wind farm deployment has experienced grown significantly since 2005, with an increase of over 2000 MW of installed capacity of wind power. This has created a corresponding boom of social friction in some of the communities hosting wind projects. This comes at a time when climate change is becoming an increasingly urgent issue of high policy-priority for many governments around the world. It was made very clear by Dr. Hill that he also believes that climate change should indeed be a top priority issue for all, and that significant changes in our global energy supply need to occur within the next few years in order to lessen the forecasted severe impacts of climate change.

One of the primary reasons for the opposition was deemed to be the perceived health problems and stress experienced by those who live near wind turbines who sense that they are physically and psychologically affected by the noise, vibrations, and visual impact of the turbines. These concerns, when communicated repeatedly between concerned neighbors, become amplified further. The additional factors behind the opposition include: a loss of local control and management over planning approvals; a lack of meaningful consultation within public engagement processes; a place-based attachment to the “integrity, stability, and beauty” of rural communities; the relatively rapid rate of change and deployment; the perception of high local costs and low benefits or positive incentives; and a loss of trust in the Ontario government and the wind industry. The importance of a rural, land-based idyll was emphasized, originating from opponents who may work in a large city but decide to live in the countryside because they value the peaceful landscape for their retreat from the busy and noisy nature of city life. Their opposition to the industrialization of their landscapes is then partly based on the need to protect their lifestyles.

The way forward

Given the opposition against rural wind power generation, what are some ways that the Government of Ontario can develop renewable sources of energy in ways that recognize the social realities and reactions that arise as new technologies are introduced? Dr. Hill described several key ideas that should be considered while moving forward. When deploying new technologies, they must not only be technically and economically feasible, but also socially rational. Once strong public attitudes about new technologies or processes become formed, it can be very difficult to alter these. For this reason, new skills and capacity are needed to help governments and industry proponents identify these social reactions earlier and address them more effectively. Given the importance of social attitudes, public engagement and even local ownership should be sought in a well-intentioned and inclusive way in order to fully address the risks and benefits of energy technology. Such measures will contribute to a more balanced approach between carbon and placed-based environmentalism.

Summary of the interactive discussion

The various reasons behind the public opposition to rural wind development were explored further in the discussion. Besides the intrusive nature of the turbines themselves and the perceived health stresses experienced, the fact that rural communities had felt that they had lost control, input, or ownership of the changes taking place near their land was emphasized. The rural wind development was not only contrasting views between communities and industries and governments, but also within the communities themselves. This situation was contrasted with examples in countries like Germany and Denmark where there have been more positive experiences with rural wind turbine placements due to the incentives, subsidies, and opportunities to establish local ownership.

The question was raised about the degree of NIMBYism (“not in my backyard”) at play in this issue, whereby the rural communities oppose not the nature or value of the wind energy development itself, but simply the idea that they would prefer that it be done elsewhere, far away from them. This NIMBYism aspect was deemed by Dr. Hill to be an insufficient explanation. He suggested that a better perspective through which to view the emotional issues behind the opposition was that of the “social friction” between urban and rural values, whereby rural communities feel that they are having urban ideals imposed onto them.

The question of community support for alternative energy development was discussed, that is, whether the communities that are concerned about wind development have other suggestions for energy sources that they would be willing to support in their rural landscapes or in nearby lands. As Ontario’s energy infrastructure is aging and outdated, the need to invest in new energy sources is apparent. Whether it is natural gas, wind power, solar power, or nuclear power, the chosen energy source should provide power efficiently and at a net industrial benefit in order for it to be viable. Given the importance of developing an alternative energy sources to conventional fossil fuels to avoid the effects of climate change, while still delivering the desired amenities to Canadians, it was also questioned whether it might be best to go ahead with wind development in Canada as quickly as the required resources become available and in spite of local opposition that exists.

It was suggested by some attendees that the rural communities are motivated less by external financial incentives and more by the concern about their right to self-determinism for what happens to their own communities. It was suggested that the communities desire greater local input toward site decisions, project approval and the associated benefits within the community. Given the motives of some political stakeholders involved in the opposition, it was questioned whether we are witnessing a social opposition movement as suggested by the speaker or a politically-guided opposition. The provincial partisan politics became a critical factor in shaping this opposition in the last provincial election. How to address and categorize this opposition and the issues presented is a strategic question that provincial governments and others who grapple with opposing protests and concerns must come to terms with. Provincial governments must also determine whether or how they can grant the requests of the communities for co-ownership while at the same time not sacrificing the viability and development of the wind industry.

Written by Sarah Macri and Chris McCracken

Students in Masters of Sustainable Energy Policy

To view Dr. Hill’s presentation, click on the following link: