An aborted wind power project has sent a message that Canadian environmental standards require renewable energy developers to do more than cut carbon emissions by replacing coal- and natural gas-fired generating stations.
The Saskatchewan government set the example by rejecting a C$355 million (US$273 million) plan for a 177 MW array of 79 wind turbines on a 19,000-hectare (76-square-mile) site, 200 kilometers (120 miles) west of the provincial capital of Regina.
The decision emphasized that green rules to protect land, water and wildlife apply to all developers. Sponsors of the ill-fated wind farm included provincial government-owned SaskPower as well as Algonquin Power & Utilities Corp., a budding Toronto clean energy conglomerate with interests in more than 70 operations across Canada and the United States, including generating stations and water, power and gas distribution networks.
In formal reasons for the ruling, Saskatchewan Environment Minister Scott Moe said, “While supporting economic development is an important objective, development cannot proceed at the expense of the sustainability of the environment.”
Saskatchewan, Canada’s second-biggest oil-producing jurisdiction after Alberta, is mired in recession due to depressed crude oil prices. The wind power plan promised to make a start on rising out of the fossil fuel slump with green investment and job creation.
But the defeated proposal was named the Chaplin Energy Project after its location near a lake that turned out to be its undoing. Chaplin Lake, beside the TransCanada Highway midway between Moose Jaw and Swift Current, figures in an internationally designated “Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserves Network.”
Provincial and federal wildlife census takers estimate the area is used every day by 67,000 migrating birds of 30 species, including threatened types. The avian travelers pause to rest and dine out on tiny brine shrimp that thrive on salty prairie lake water.
An ecotourism network has grown up in the area, giving motorists a break from tedious straight flat stretches of the long national highway by providing an interpretive center, bus tours and a short-range FM radio station broadcasting nature lore.
The Saskatchewan environment minister said, “Construction and operation of a large-scale wind power facility in conflict with these environmental features would be an inappropriate use of the landscape and inconsistent with the public’s expectation that such unique environmental features will be effectively protected.”
Chaplin Lake stood out as a test case of industry ability to build new installations on the large scale required by ambitious official clean energy goals in regions that lack readily accessible hydroelectric growth sites.
On the Canadian plains and mountain foothills, SaskPower has set a goal of doubling the renewable energy share of provincial electricity generation to 50% by 2030 and Alberta policy likewise calls for major expansion of wind and solar power.
At Chaplin Lake, Algonquin, through subsidiary Windelectric Inc., began unsuccessfully courting public and government support in 2010. All but one of 137 participants in the case before the Saskatchewan Environmental Assessment Review Panel professed to support wind power but agreed that the technology poses hazards.
Wildlife surveys estimated that 26% of migrating birds use flight paths that go through the “rotor-swept area” that the wind farm’s jumbo turbines would have created around the lake. Precautions devised by the project sponsors, such as warning systems and ways to slow or halt the rotors, were rated as inadequate.
The case also indicated that in sensitive areas, renewable energy technology is liable to rate as worse for the natural and community environments than traditional industries. Salt deposits at Chaplin Lake have been profitably mined since 1948 for sodium-sulphate, which is used in laundry and dishwater detergents, pulp and paper, glass, textiles, starch, dyes, carpet and room deodorizers, and livestock mineral feed.
The legacy of the failed Chaplin Energy Project is a new environmental rule for all wind power schemes. At the same time as the rejection decision was released, the Saskatchewan government announced enforcement of a five-kilometer (three-mile) “buffer zone” where turbine farms will be prohibited around environmentally sensitive parks, ecology reserves, bird habitat and rivers.
Canadian Wind Energy Association President Robert Hornung praised the policy clarification as “a results-based document that provides guidance for the wind energy industry.” No replacement for the rejected wind farm stepped forward.