Tilting at Green Windmills

Nova Scotia Power Inc. appears to be complicating what should be an admirable project to develop green sources for electrical generation.

Its plan to erect two large wind turbines at Cheticamp, where winds blow with legendary force, ought to be cause for celebration. But after corporate planners botched their initial approach to the community, the project threatens to become a magnet for environmental protest instead of environmental pride.

NSP starts behind the curve on green power issues. It relies on that dirtiest and deadliest of fuels, coal, to generate most of its electricity.

In the 1970s, coal generation made some sense. Following the OPEC oil embargo, soaring fuel prices threatened to bankrupt the utility, then a Crown corporation. By converting to coal, it saved hundreds of millions of dollars, and provided badly needed work for Cape Breton miners.

Now the mines are gone, and Nova Scotia, like jurisdictions around the world, faces mounting pressure to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. NSP accounts for 39 per cent of Nova Scotia's total emissions. According to a recent report on the issue by GPI Atlantic, power generation provides the best opportunity for large reductions in greenhouse gases. Wind power is an obvious starting point.

An early windmill was installed with the best of motives at Wreck Cove in the Cape Breton Highlands during the late 1970s. It had to be abandoned when it proved to be a technological dead end. Designs have improved dramatically in the quarter century since, and wind generators have become reliable contributors to electrical grids in Quebec, Alberta, the American Southwest, and many parts of Europe.

Against this background, NSP recently announced the purchase of two 600-kilowatt wind generators from separate European manufacturers for installation at Cheticamp, and called for proposals for 50 megawatts of wind power from independent producers.

Alas, what should have been a public relations windfall for the company has instead provoked an outpouring of complaints from Cheticamp residents who believe the company is running roughshod over features of the town they hold dear.

At the heart of the trouble is NSP's pre-emptive decision to locate the two generators at the north end of Cheticamp Island, smack in the middle of one on the province's most celebrated scenic vistas.

As a recent letter to the Cape Breton Post pointed out, to see where the turbines would be, one need only look at familiar postcards of the Cabot Trail or the cover of last year's "Doer's and Dreamer's" tourism guide.

The windmills are not small. With their blades in the upright position, they will reach nearly 75 metres into the sky - about the height of a twenty-five-storey building. They will tower of Cheticamp's magnificent Catholic Church.

Power company officials reply that the turbines will hardly be eyesores. Many will find them aesthetically pleasing, the company argues, and they hold potential to attract tourists.

That's no justification for placing them somewhere that's already renowned for its scenic beauty. The MacKay Bridge is an impressive structure, but you wouldn't plunk it down in the middle of Peggy's Cove. Not without prior consultation. Not without a fight.

NSP did hold a public meeting in Cheticamp, but less a consultation session than an opportunity for company officials to announce decisions already taken. Worse, invitations to the event arrived in the mail days after the event occurred.

"This scene is in the minds of all visitors to the province as they drive to Cape Breton," Cheticamp Island resident Gretchen Noyes-Hull wrote in a recent letter to the editor of the Cape Breton Post. "It is hard to imagine that they will comprehend why we allowed a private industrial company to spoil the natural beauty of that they had driven so far to see."

Noyes-Hull and other critics count themselves strong supporters of green power, yet the rising controversy over the location of the turbines has the earmarks of one of those protracted environmental disputes in which both sides dig themselves into intractable positions.

NSP seems to realize its community consultations got off on the wrong foot. While stressing that many in Cheticamp support the project, spokesperson Margaret Murphy promised additional meetings and even a delay in the project if necessary to address what she acknowledged were "very valid community concerns."

Murphy was less clear about whether the turbines might be relocated, saying only that the company was "willing to adjust the timeline and perhaps other aspects of the project."

NSP likes the Cheticamp Island location in part because its prominence offers a visible symbol of the company's commitment to environmental concerns.

There are lots of equally windy spots in the Cheticamp area. NSP should work with residents of the community to find a more agreeable location.

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