Off the coast of British Columbia in Canada is an island called
Quadra, where I have a cabin that is as close to my heart as you
can imagine. From my porch on a good day you can see clear across
the waters of Georgia Strait to the snowy peaks of the rugged Coast
Mountains. It is one of the most beautiful views I have seen. And
I would gladly share it with a wind farm.
But sometimes it seems like Im in the minority. All across Europe
and North America, environmentalists are locking horns with the
wind industry over the location of wind farms. In Alberta, one group
is opposing a planned wind farm near Cypress Hills Provincial Park,
claiming it would destroy views of the park and disturb some of
the last remaining native prairie in the province. In the UK more
than 100 national and local groups, led by some of the countrys
most prominent environmentalists, have argued that wind power is
inefficient, destroys the ambience of the countryside and makes
little difference to carbon emissions. And in the US, the Cape Wind
Project, which would site 130 wind turbines off the coast of affluent
Cape Cod, Massachusetts, has come under fire from famous liberals,
including Senator Edward Kennedy and Walter Cronkite.
It is time for some perspective. With the growing urgency of climate
change, we cannot have it both ways. We cannot shout from the rooftops
about the dangers of global warming and then turn around and shout
even louder about the dangers of windmills. Climate
change is one of the greatest challenges humanity will face this
century. It cannot be solved through good intentions. It will take
a radical change in the way we produce and consume energy
another industrial revolution, this time for clean energy, conservation
We have undergone such transformations before and we can do it
again. But first we must accept that all forms of energy have associated
costs. Fossil fuels are limited in quantity and create vast amounts
of pollution. Large-scale hydroelectric power floods valleys and
destroys animal habitat. Nuclear power is terribly expensive and
creates radioactive waste.
Wind power also has its downsides. It is highly visible and can
kill birds. The fact is, though, that any man-made structure can
kill birds houses, radio towers, skyscrapers. In Toronto
alone, it is estimated that 10,000 birds collide with the citys
tallest buildings every year. Compared with this, the risk to birds
from well-sited wind farms is very low.
Even at Altamont Pass in California, where 7000 turbines were erected
on a migratory route, only 0.2 birds per turbine per year have been
killed. Indeed, the real risk to birds comes not from windmills
but from a changing climate, which threatens the very existence
of bird species and their habitats. This is not to say that wind
farms should be allowed to spring up anywhere. They should always
be subject to environmental impact assessments. But a blanket not
in my backyard approach is hypocritical and counterproductive.
Pursuing wind power as part of our move towards clean energy makes
sense. It is the fastest-growing source of energy in the world
a $6 billion industry last year. Its cost has dropped dramatically
over the past two decades because of larger turbines and greater
knowledge of how to build, install and operate turbines more effectively.
Prices will likely decrease further as the technology improves.
We cant shout about global warming and then shout even
louder about the dangers of windmills.
Are windmills ugly? I remember when Mostafa Tolba, executive director
of the United Nations Environment Programme from 1976 to 1992, told
me how when he was growing up in Egypt, smokestacks belching out
smoke were considered signs of progress. Even as an adult concerned
about pollution, it took him a long time to get over the instinctive
pride he felt when he saw a tower pouring out clouds of smoke.
We see beauty through filters shaped by our values and beliefs.
Some people think wind turbines are ugly. I think smokestacks, smog,
acid rain, coal-fired power plants and climate change are ugly.
I think windmills are beautiful. They harness the power of the wind
to supply us with heat and light. They provide local jobs. They
help clean our air and reduce climate change.
And if one day I look out from my cabins porch and see a row of
windmills spinning in the distance, I wont curse them. I will praise
them. It will mean we are finally getting somewhere.
From issue 2495 of New Scientist magazine, 16 April 2005
David Suzuki is a scientist, broadcaster, author and chair of
the David Suzuki Foundation (www.davidsuzuki.org)