by Eric Nixon, Hayter-Walden Publications
Before the Turbines
This is a story about one woman and her family. Average people, like most of us. It’s about how their happy, rural lives changed dramatically beginning a few short years ago. About how they were transformed from contented farmers into faceless people who feel trapped in their own lives. It’s a story of what happened when wind turbines changed everything. And it’s a story about how people’s lives in our communities are about to change, too, with the proposed installation of up to 400 turbines right in our own backyard.
Monica Elmes lives in Chatham-Kent, about an hour or so south of here. She and her husband Neil have owned a small cash crop farm just south of Ridgetown for the past 17 years. She’s an intelligent person who studied Science and Agriculture and worked as a research technician for the University of Guelph and Ridgetown College. Slightly more than a decade ago, she and Neil decided to have a child and she’s been a stay-at-home mom ever since.
Until a few years ago, she described her life on the farm as ‘fabulous.’ “We bought our property and farm here planning to never leave, have done extensive renovations and everything we can with the view that this was where we were going to live and die forever – and absolutely loved this place,” she says.
As a farmer, she and Neil have always been concerned about the environment. “I’m really an environmentally conscious person. Everything we do on our farm – we have our environmental farm plan. Everything we do in our home – we’ve always thought about those consequences to the environment,” she says.
That’s what got her excited about the idea of wind turbines in the first place. About six years ago, there was a lot of talk in her community through the grapevine about people wanting to lease to wind companies – and the couple were definitely interested. At the time, crop prices were really bad and they were intrigued when a group of local residents approached them: “They thought if, as neighbours, we could get together and form sort of a group to approach the company, it would be beneficial for everyone to have that sort of power position, kind of a cooperative, community thing,” she says. “A lot of people – ourselves, as well – we thought this would be a good thing for the environment – and an opportunity to make money at the same time.”
About 10-15 families were involved at the start and they arranged to have someone come and talk about wind turbines and leasing, long before the government had introduced the Green Energy Act or Feed-In Tariff program. The Elmes attended a couple of initial meetings and were interested enough that they wanted to learn more, so started doing their own research. That’s when the worries started creeping in. “I had a few red flags, immediately, come up. When you started looking into the industry and finding that some people were reporting complaints,” says Elmes.
The couple decided to see some of the other projects that were in development at the time. They visited the Melancthon wind facility, Ontario’s first utility-scale wind project (133 turbines producing 200 megawatts of power), which is located near Shelburne, southwest of Barrie, as well as Clear Creek, a small project southwest of Brantford. After talking to local people in those areas about their experiences, the Elmes expressed concerns to the group. They were especially worried about people who live near turbines but don’t own the land and, therefore, receive no compensation.
That’s the last they heard from the group. In fact, overnight, the Elmes were shunned by their neighbours and turned into virtual pariahs in the community, a sting that still hurts Monica Elmes to this day.
Not long afterwards, a company called Renewable Energy Systems (RES) announced a 100 megawatt project involving 44 2.3 MW turbines, which they were negotiating with their local municipality. Rumours began swirling that the government was going to be introducing some large-scale incentives programs and, for the time, the project dragged on. Once the Green Energy Act was introduced in 2009, however, things kicked into high gear. RES announced that majority ownership of the project was being sold to Enbridge Inc. of Alberta in November 2009. Because the project had already been announced, it managed to be grandfathered in under the GEA, avoiding a much more strenuous application process.
By the spring of 2010, construction had already begun. By Elmes reckoning, it lasted about nine months, from early spring until late fall. Putting up turbines that tower up to 500 feet doesn’t happen overnight. “It starts early because they’re laying cable and doing the access roads, so the gravel trucks, all of that is huge,” says Elmes. Roads had to be widened. Trees needed to be cut down and other “big landscaping” done. Concrete had to be poured. All of that involved bulldozers and massive cranes and cement mixers and huge parts-carrying trucks.
Despite the nearest tower being 1.5 km from their house, the noise was unbearable, especially during the summer. The company had applied for a noise exemption and, according to Elmes, “Basically, that bylaw allows them to make as much noise as they want, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.” The company would start early in the morning and work late into the night, using massive floodlights to add extra hours to the already long summer days. Sometimes, even that wasn’t enough: “If weather becomes an issue or deadlines become an issue, they’ll work around the clock,” says Elmes.
The family was fortunate in one way, however. With many cell tower installations, it’s necessary to drive piles for the tower foundations. “It’s like a non-stop bang, bang, bang that is deep in the ground and carries a long way,” says Elmes. As well, it often causes issues with both well water and ground water.
In addition to the noise, there was plenty of inconvenience for drivers, with frequent traffic tie-ups and blocked roads. With hundreds of trucks involved, the rural roads in such projects always take a beating. Elmes said people began to have well-water quality issues.
The construction itself went pretty smoothly, notes Elmes. After all the long, annoying pre-construction work was done, she says it seemed like the towers themselves went up fairly quickly, practically one a day. By fall, the long, noisy, dirty disruptive construction work was completed.
And there they sat – 44 idle turbines waiting to be turned on. Despite the fact that the nearest turbine is more than one km away from their house, they have a total of 27 within five km and they can see 17 just by looking out their windows. So much for their beautiful view and idyllic rural lifestyle. They were now part of a large-scale industrial complex. But the construction had stopped and, at least temporarily, quiet had returned to their community.
Then, on December 16, 2010, the turbine blades started turning. And life for the Elmes suddenly got a whole lot worse.
“Dec 17: Early AM. Neil not sleeping well, me neither.” Monica Elmes wrote those words in her diary back in 2010. It wasn’t until some time later that she realized what had happened the previous day outside her home in Chatham-Kent. After years of preparation and close to nine months of construction, Enbridge Inc. had flicked the switch and started 44 powerful wind turbines turning near the Elmes household. Lack of sleep was just the first symptom for Elmes and her family.
“To me, the visual intrusion is huge but, also, when they started to function, the noise intrusion was way more than I ever thought. When I first saw the map and saw where we were located, I thought, ‘Oh, good, we’re 1.5 km away from the closest one,’” says Elmes. She almost let out a sigh of relief at the time, not expecting the noise would be bothersome. Nothing could be further from the truth. Noise levels today with the turbines operating are often ten times what they were before.
And noise was just the beginning. For the first time in her life, Elmes began experiencing painful earaches. “It was kind of a definitive moment for me when I realized,” she says. At first, she didn’t equate the turbine noise and the ear discomfort. But, one day when the turbines stopped, her ears started popping and crackling – and she realized the increasingly worsening ear pains were being caused by the turning blades.
One of the problems so many people have with turbines is that they’re intermittent and unpredictable. Elmes says, “It’s incredibly variable. There’s times when it’s fine, other than visually. There are other times where it feels like something’s beating you over the head.”
Elmes is fortunate that she’s mostly susceptible only to health issues associated with the audible noise from the turbines. Her spouse, Neil, is a completely different story. “My husband is the one I worry about more, because he seems to be sensitive to what I would assume is non-audible low-frequency noise, so he doesn’t sleep well anymore.”
Elmes has watched her husband change dramatically over the last two years. “You go from someone who is a very calm, together person and to see him where he gets angry and he’s tired and this is just not what he’s ever been any other time,” she says. He takes more sick days from work and, when he gets sick, the illnesses last far longer.
Other nearby residents suffer from headaches, along with a variety of other ailments, often comparing their homes to living in airports. “When the project starts off, I will guarantee there will be some people who know immediately and those are the people that are very sensitive and they will have the headaches and the nausea and that sort of thing, because I’ve seen it in all of the projects,” says Elmes. “Others, it can be six months before they might make a connection.”
For those who don’t believe that wind turbines cause health issues in certain people, Elmes shakes her head in disbelief. “I don’t understand how some people dismiss it – when some people are affected by some things and others aren’t. Not everyone has diabetes, but you don’t deny the fact that there’s diabetes,” she says.
In addition to health issues, Elmes can list numerous other problems that have come to light since the turbines arrived. Dramatic changes to wildlife in the area. Bizarre behaviour by their family pets. Numerous severe stray voltage incidents in the surrounding area that have destroyed appliances and electronics (although, fortunately, the Elmes have been spared this at their home).
After 17 years on the farm property they’ve always loved, the Elmes have finally realized they may have to relocate, as so many others have been forced to do when turbines take over their lives. In one way, they’re fortunate. With crop prices as high as they are currently, they know they could sell their farm and make money. But, what then? Neil lives about an hour from work and says he doesn’t want to have to commute any farther. Unfortunately, any place that’s within a similar commuting distance is already surrounded by wind farms – or will be once proposed ones are built. “It’s a sense of being trapped,” says Elmes.
Other people are in much worse straits. If you don’t own farmland with your rural property, chances are your home’s value has already dropped dramatically. One friend told Elmes, “We put all this money into a home that we don’t think we can sell anymore.” It’s a familiar story across Chatham-Kent and will become an increasingly larger problem in our area, as upwards of 400 proposed turbines are built in the next few years.
One big difficulty with wind turbines is that they’re often located on properties where the landowners don’t live. That causes friction with resident homeowners who don’t have large plots of land or other farmers who have chosen not to sign leases with turbine companies. Where Elmes lives, about 67% of the turbines are located on property where the leaseholder doesn’t live – and many of those same leaseholders don’t even reside in Chatham-Kent. Two nearby turbines are on land owned by someone from the Cambridge area.
Elmes knows that many farmers have benefited financially from the income generated by the wind farms and, for many of them, she understands their reasoning. In the case of several older people in her area, they’ve used the proceeds from the wind farms to build new homes elsewhere.
She also knows of one family that was put under extreme pressure to sign a lease and caved in. The company had told them if they cooperated, the transmission lines for the turbines would go at the back of their property, away from their home. If they didn’t, however, they’d go along the road easement, right over top of their bungalow. The company played them against their neighbours, a common complaint among residents. Elmes says, “I truly feel badly for some of them. For the rest, I don’t think I can ever forgive them.”
This is where the whole problem of “neighbour versus neighbour” arises, something Elmes knows a lot about. After initially being very interested in the idea of wind farms, Elmes began doing more research and voicing concerns with others in her community. After that, she started getting the cold shoulder from many of her neighbours. “Basically, I was excommunicated, because I raised concerns. It’s very, very nasty. I wish it didn’t happen ever to anyone,” she says. However, she does note that, because of the wind turbine issue, she’s actually met different neighbours – those opposed to the farms – who she likely would never had met if the turbines hadn’t gone up in the first place.
On the other side of the fence from the Elmes and the wind power opponents, there are still many who defend the Green Energy Act and believe that wind farms are good for Ontario. Our local municipalities will likely receive several hundred thousand dollars per year as part of a community fund from the wind companies. Elmes admits that, in her area, Enbridge donates to the local Santa Claus Parade and other community events. Some local politicians have termed this “hush money,” given to municipalities to keep them from throwing up roadblocks during development of the projects, but others believe it’s found money they wouldn’t have received without the wind farms.
Even the most enthusiastic supporters of wind projects admit they’re an expensive, unreliable method of producing energy. It’s a realization that Elmes came to almost six years ago. “No matter how many of them go up, you still have to have another means of energy ready on standby for when the wind doesn’t blow. And, as soon as I realized that and that, basically, they are nothing but redundant and that we’re paying for that hugely, that was the point where I went, ‘There are just too many things that are wrong with this.’”
She makes no apologies for her beliefs. “It doesn’t make environmental sense. It doesn’t make economic sense. It certainly doesn’t make sense in the community for anyone,” she says. “This industry is just wrong – completely wrong.”
It’s just one woman’s opinion. One woman who started out in favour of the idea of clean energy produced by the wind, an idea that sounds so good in practice. At a recent Public Information Session held by the Municipality of North Middlesex, Deputy Mayor Chuck Hall said, “I am not opposed to wind energy. I am opposed to wind energy ideas that are not feasible and create health concerns.” That’s Elmes’ point exactly.
In a year or two, all of us will be able to tell our own versions of Elmes’ story. Some people will be affected hugely by the arrival of the hundreds of new turbines in our area. For others, the windmills will likely be just a minor inconvenience. In either case, we’ll all have at least the next two decades to form our own opinions about this new, industrialized world we’ll be living in.
If you’d like to hear more about Monica Elmes’ story, she’ll be one of four guest speakers at a Public Information Session being held by the Middlesex-Lambton Wind Action Group, Tuesday, January 29th at 7:30 p.m. at the Coldstream Community Centre in Ilderton. Other guests include Colette McLean (another Chatham-Kent resident), Richard Wakefield and Grand Bend area realtor Doug Pedlar.