Pros and Cons of Wind Energy in BC

by Bruce Muir

Unknown to most, the northeast region of British Columbia (BC) is the location of the province’s first wind energy projects: the Dokie Wind Energy Project, located roughly 50 kilometres northwest of Chetwynd, BC, and the Bear Mountain Wind Park Project, located about 15 kilometres west of Dawson Creek, BC.These two windfarms provide important lessons both to the wind industry and to communities that want to protect their neighbourhoods.

Development Run Afoul

As the first approved wind project in BC, Dokie seemed to set the standard regarding the substance of consultation, planning, economic benefits, and development practices.  While its inclusive approach to consultation is unsurpassed to this day, the remainder of the project’s legacy is in serious jeopardy.

Construction of the project came to a grinding halt soon after its approval in 2006. The original company found itself in financial troubles and a new company took over ownership during the development stage. Under the new ownership, many problems have come to light.

The first problem is the footprint, much of which is unnecessarily large and high-impact. As the picture illustrates, there are multiple roads that run more or less parallel to one another. Other roads have been constructed in a wasteful manner. Some are as large as a two-lane highway with an additional 10 metres of cut on both sides.  

Second, industrial logging operations have clearcut a significant portion of the forests in and around the turbines, which should have remained in place as a mitigation measure. Under the guise of managing the Pine Beetle epidemic, and with little regard to the principles of integrated resource management, the forest company further fragmented the surrounding habitat.

BC’s Forest Practice Board has  suggested that stands of dead Lodgepole Pine “may provide more diverse wildlife habitat than… a stand regenerating after a clearcut…” There would be little reason for intervening in these stands if habitat restoration was the goal. 

Lastly, it was a poor decision to place the aggregate pit on top of the ridge (as the picture illustrates) where the ecosystem is much more sensitive. A more suitable location for the aggregate pit would have been in a lower elevation area, where reclamation would likely have been more successful in restoring ecological integrity.    

The additive effects of poor design and execution, in addition to the irresponsible logging, left the area as a “moonscape,” according to Chief Roland Willson of West Moberly First Nations. Chief Willson also points out that it is unbecoming of the “vision” that the Dokie windfarm took on as the first renewable energy project in BC.   

Few could dispute that the development stage of Dokie marred the inauguration of the wind industry in BC. It’s replete with a range of challenges, many of which may never be overcome, given the amount of restoration required and the financial cost of completing such a task. While the full impact of Dokie remains to be seen, Chief Willson has stated that his community is hopeful that the proponent will see the advantage of working collaboratively with them to address the many problems.

Well Planned, Well Executed

Approved in 2007, the Bear Mountain project was constructed with nominal plan alterations that quickly led to the windfarm becoming the first to supply energy to the provincial grid. 

Windfarms like Bear Mountain are no different from other large-scale industrial projects. They take up land and result in ecological impacts. But for a major development project, the ecological footprint of this project seems to be minimal, especially in comparison to Dokie.

The layout is well designed.  Roads, access to the right of way for the power lines, and the pads for the turbines are constructed close to one another. Even the green rings with differing hues that surround the base of the turbines go a long way in mitigating the on-site visual impact, which is beneficial since it’s a multi-use setting.

While the construction footprint is small relatively speaking, there remains an opportunity to restore large portions of the turbine pads to a more natural setting. Applying bioengineering techniques (e.g. planting willows, not spraying a seed mix) would jump-start ecological succession.    

Perhaps the true test of whether Bear Mountain is a suitable addition to the City of Dawson Creek’s environment and viewscape will be the findings of a follow-up study (if conducted) with the local residents, including those that frequently use the land around the turbines for recreational purposes. 

Future Implications

Northern communities have renowned viewscapes, each offering a unique wilderness experience to both residents and visitors alike. All of these are in peril, however. Each of the communities in the Peace Region will soon wake up to a series of wind turbines on their horizon.

Today it’s the City of Dawson Creek, but in the months to come BC’s Environmental Assessment Office will most likely recommend the approval of projects that will tower over the districts of Tumbler Ridge (Tumbler Wind Energy Project) and Chetwynd (Wildmare Wind Energy Project). Turbines placed in the viewscapes of the district of Mackenzie and the City of Fort St. John may likely follow. Even the proverbial Serengeti of the north, the Muskwa-Kechika wilderness area, is under siege by would-be wind developers.

Such a direction seems in tune with BC’s current regulatory system that favours projects proposed by Independent Power Producers (IPP).  Compounding this problem is BC Hydro’s unremitting desire to buy the power. All of this has fostered a sense of entitlement within the wind industry.

Most proponents use one of two premises (and sometimes both) when attempting to refute or minimize concerns from local residents regarding such projects. A proponent may rationalize the dismay as an initial and insignificant concern that will likely dissipate once locals become more accustomed to their new landscape. Or, the developer will contend that the impact is justifiable because such development is (in their view) in the public interest.  

Accepting either premise is problematic and potentially unlawful. Legal scholars contend, as Lynda Collins in her article, “An Ecologically Literate Reading of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms,” points out, the “free-standing human right to the environment” includes “the protection of aesthetic interests” under the common law in Canada. So the wind industry ought to proceed accordingly and proactively. It has an opportunity, although a brief one, to be better than non-renewable industries and also to improve upon BC’s minimal standard approach to interpreting (and often misinterpreting) the legal rights of citizens.

Wavering Support

While I initially supported developing the province’s wind energy resources, my feelings are quickly changing. This is in part because the northeast has more wind projects than the south has turbines, but more specifically it’s due to the cumulative effects of oil and gas, mining, logging, hydroelectric development, and other industrial activities in the Peace Region. That level of geographic inequity is troubling.

Wind should not be considered an alternative form of energy. It is merely an additional form of energy that is being used to fuel our consumptive habits. While I’m sure BC would argue otherwise, as would those who have invested in branding the wind industry as “green,” the many existing and proposed oil, gas and coal projects adjacent to wind tenures tell a much different story.

Oddly enough, the IPP of Dokie was a presenter at the 2010 Coal Forum in Chetwynd, BC, which demonstrates an interesting and often overlooked element of the connection between non-renewable and renewable energy projects. It is clear that without coal mines, windfarms don’t exist, as the current turbines are steel structures and the manufacturing of steel requires coal. The two industries seem to go hand-in-hand at this point.   

Other jurisdictions need to take heed of what is happening in the Peace region before their surroundings are forever altered, either by inadequate project design and execution (proponent driven) or by haphazard land use planning (government driven). It seems that, for windfarms to earn their place within a community, the industry and BC must first learn to ensure that a project is a suitable addition to the landscape. This may be accomplished by making decisions based on the perspective of local residents, rather than on the perspective of those that do not live in the region or share in the burden. 

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Bruce Muir is an environmental planner in northeast British Columbia who works with industry, First Nations, governments, and the public.


[from WS Nov/Dec, 2010 issue]

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