Author Archives: Donald Lesko

Paris climate change agreement: the world’s greatest diplomatic success

Paris climate change agreement: the world’s greatest diplomatic success

With all 196 nations having a say, the UN climate deal, with all its frustrations and drama, has proven that compromise works for the planet

In the final meeting of the Paris talks on climate change on Saturday night, the debating chamber was full and the atmosphere tense. Ministers from 196 countries sat behind their country nameplates, aides flocking them, with observers packed into the overflowing hall.

John Kerry, the US secretary of state, talked animatedly with his officials, while China’s foreign minister Xie Zhenhua wore a troubled look. They had been waiting in this hall for nearly two hours. The French hosts had trooped in to take their seats on the stage, ready to applaud on schedule at 5.30pm – but it was now after 7pm, and the platform was deserted.

After two weeks of fraught negotiations, was something going badly wrong?

Then at 7.16pm, the French foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, returned abruptly to the stage, flanked by high-ranking UN officials. The last-minute compromises had been resolved, he said. And suddenly they were all on their feet. Fabius brought down the green-topped gavel, a symbol of UN talks, and announced that a Paris agreement had been signed. The delegates were clapping, cheering and whistling wildly, embracing and weeping. Even the normally reserved economist Lord Stern was whooping.

Outside the hall, a “Mexican wave” of standing ovations rippled across the conference centre as news reached participants gathered around screens outside for the translation into their own language. The 50,000 people who attended the summit had been waiting for this moment, through marathon negotiating sessions and sleepless nights.

The contrast with the last global attempt to resolve climate change, at Copenhagen in 2009, which collapsed into chaos and recriminations, could not have been greater. In a city recently hit by terrorist attacks that left 130 dead and scores more critically injured, collective will had prevailed.

Paris produced an agreement hailed as “historic, durable and ambitious”. Developed and developing countries alike are required to limit their emissions to relatively safe levels, of 2C with an aspiration of 1.5C, with regular reviews to ensure these commitments can be increased in line with scientific advice. Finance will be provided to poor nations to help them cut emissions and cope with the effects of extreme weather. Countries affected by climate-related disasters will gain urgent aid.

Like any international compromise, it is not perfect: the caps on emissions are still too loose, likely to lead to warming of 2.7 to 3C above pre-industrial levels, breaching the 2C threshold that scientists say is the limit of safety, beyond which the effects – droughts, floods, heatwaves and sea level rises – are likely to become catastrophic and irreversible. Poor countries are also concerned that the money provided to them will not be nearly enough to protect them. Not all of the agreement is legally binding, so future governments of the signatory countries could yet renege on their commitments.

The deal alone won’t dig us out of the hole that we’re in, but it makes the sides less steep.

These flaws may shadow the future of climate change action, but on Saturday night they took second place. As the news spread through the world, the reaction from civil society groups, governments and businesses, was overwhelmingly positive.

Kumi Naidoo, executive director of Greenpeace International, summed up the mood: “It sometimes seems that the countries of the UN can unite on nothing, but nearly 200 countries have come together and agreed a deal. Today, the human race has joined in a common cause. The Paris agreement is only one step on a long road and there are parts of it that frustrate, that disappoint me, but it is progress. The deal alone won’t dig us out of the hole that we’re in, but it makes the sides less steep.”

Even as delegates celebrated at the conference’s end, there was a palpable sense of relief from the exhausted French hosts. At many points in this fortnight of marathon negotiating sessions, it looked as if a deal might be beyond reach. That it ended in success was a tribute in part to their diligence and efficiency and the efforts of the UN.

“France has brought openness and experience in diplomacy, and mutual respect to these talks,” said Stern, one of the world’s leading climate economists. “They have taken great care to make everyone listened to, that they were consulted. There was a great sense of openness, of professional diplomacy, and skill.”

Saturday night was the culmination not only of a fortnight of talks, but of more than 23 years of international attempts under the UN to forge collective action on this global problem. Since 1992, all of the world’s governments had been pledging to take measures that would avoid dangerous warming. Those efforts were marked by discord and failure, the refusal of the biggest emitters to take part, ineffective agreements and ignored treaties.

For these reasons, the Paris talks were widely seen as make-or-break for the UN process. If they failed, collective global efforts would be at an end and the world would be left without a just and robust means of tackling climate change.

The threat was catastrophic and the stakes could scarcely be higher. Without urgent action, warming was predicted to reach unprecedented levels, of as much as 5C above current temperatures – a level that would see large swathes of the globe rendered virtually uninhabitable. What is more, infrastructure built today – coal-fired power plants, transport networks, buildings – that entail high carbon emissions will still be operating decades into the future, giving the world a narrow window in which to change the direction of our economies.

“This was the last chance,” said Miguel Arias Canete, Europe’s climate chief. “And we took it.”

The terrorist attacks on Paris raised questions about whether the talks would go ahead at all but François Hollande, the French president, insisted that they must and, in a show of unity, more than 150 heads of state landed in the French capital for the opening day. Barack Obama hailed the conference as “an act of defiance” in the face of terrorism.

Immediately after the attacks, the first concern was for security. A planned march through central Paris by protesters was cancelled, though a version of it did go ahead as the talks opened and was marred by clashes with police and a small number of protesters, and arrests. Security for the conference was stepped up, with police and army patrolling the immediate area and transport routes nearby shut down for two days.

This was the biggest ever gathering of world leaders, whose presence was needed to empower their negotiators to move out of positions entrenched for more than 20 years. When they arrived, a series of key meetings were held, with Obama seeing Xi Jinping of China, Narendra Modi of India and representatives from the least developed countries. Hollande concentrated on forging links with the developing world. Angela Merkel, in a private meeting with Vladimir Putin, secured his pledge that Russia would not stand in the way of a deal.

Behind the conference centre gates, French delegates were marshalling their diplomatic forces. They had carefully arranged the conference centre so that their part of the compound – behind barriers staffed by UN guards and secret service officers, unlike the rest of the delegations which were open to access – was directly above the UN’s offices.

Fabius, from his office, could be with Christiana Figueres, the UN climate change chief, for a face-to-face chat within seconds. His fellow minister, Ségolène Royal, was just along the corridor, flanked with the offices of ambassadors and high-ranking officials. Within the buzzing control room, screens relayed pictures of what was happening in each of the conference rooms scattered around the compound and 24 hour news from French and international channels.

About 60 French officials were there. In preparation for the all-night sessions that began almost immediately the conference started, a room with 20 cubicled beds was waiting for exhausted officials to refresh themselves with a few snatched moments of sleep.

Procedurally, the French took great care. They instituted a series of talks known as “confessionals”. These were intended as confidential places where delegates could, in the words of one French official, “speak from the heart” to listening French diplomats, with no holds barred and an assurance of privacy.

There were also the absurdly named “informal informals”, in which a small group of delegates from various countries were charged with tackling a small piece of disputed text often as little as a paragraph at a time. Their task was to try to remove the infamous “square brackets” denoting areas of disagreement on the text and they met in small huddles around the conference centre, squatting on the floor in corridors or standing around a smart phone.

After these measures were still not producing enough progress, Fabius turned to “indabas” – by Zulu tradition, these are groups of elders convened to try to discuss disputes in communities. They were first tried out at the Durban climate talks in South Africa, in 2011, and under France’s plan they consisted of groups of up to 80 delegates at a time gathered to thrash out the remaining disagreements.

While the French could draft in experienced diplomats on every side, some of the smallest countries had difficulty in keeping up with the meetings – many happened in parallel and they did not have the personnel to attend them all.

One way of getting around that was the formation of a “coalition of high ambition”, which was announced with three days to Friday’s deadline. Forged by small island states – a key figure was Tony de Brum of the Marshall Islands – and the EU, it was joined by many of the least developed countries, adding up to more than 100 nations. They could then negotiate together, with an agreed common interest. Before the end, this coalition had been joined by the US, Canada and Australia. It was hailed by Europe’s climate and energy commissioner Miguel Cañete as a key factor in the end agreement.

And yet with three days of the conference to go, it looked as if all of these efforts might yet come to nothing. On the second Wednesday of the talks, the French produced a second iteration of the core text, reducing the number of brackets from more than 300 to fewer than 40. They were hopeful that this could be almost the end – and it needed to be in order to have the legal “scrubbers” and linguistic experts assess the text and ensure it was in line with international law and accurate in all languages.

But it soon became apparent that things were not going to plan. As countries examined the draft agreement, ministers started raising concerns. On Wednesday afternoon, leading delegations trooped one by one into Fabius’ personal office: Edna Molewa of South Africa, Xie Zhenhua of China, John Kerry of the US, Julie Bishop of Australia.

For South Africa, issues over “loss and damage” emerged – for developed countries, this meant the question of whether developing countries should be entitled to special aid in the event of climate-related disasters; for the developing, it meant compensation and liability, which the US would never agree to. For China, a key sticking point was differentiation – the concept that developing countries have less responsibility for climate change. For the US, some parts of the deal could not be legally binding in order to pass Congress.

Fabius sought to allay their concerns and find a compromise. At 8pm, he convened a new plenary session, at which all countries were able to speak. It carried on through the night.

At this point, it was clear that further efforts were needed. There followed a rapid round of telephone diplomacy. Obama spoke personally to the Chinese leader. Hollande picked up the phone to as many of his counterparts across the world as he could manage.

Finally, after two more days of fraught negotiation, a consensus emerged. None of the major countries wanted to be seen as wrecking a deal that had come so close. All could agree that they wanted an agreement and all made compromises. The EU backed down on having the intended emissions cuts, agreed at a national level, to be legally binding; the US accepted language on “loss and damage”; China and India agreed that an aspiration of holding warming to 1.5C could be included.

For the diplomats involved, the efforts were exhausting. The talks took a personal toll. In the months before the conference, Laurence Tubiana, appointed as special ambassador on climate change, played a key role in liaising with developing and developed countries. Then disaster struck. A week before the COP was scheduled to begin, she suffered a sudden sharp pain. It was acute appendicitis, necessitating emergency surgery. Within days, however, she had resumed her key role. When the deal was signed, she was on the podium, receiving hugs from Ban Ki-moon, Figueres, Fabius and Hollande, a recognition of the sacrifices she had made.

All of these efforts came to a head in the final crucial days. On Saturday morning, a new draft text was prepared. Fabius assembled the delegates and told them to have lunch while they waited for it to be translated. That afternoon, they examined the text and nearly all agreed that, with minor reservations, they could accept it. The final meeting was scheduled for 5.30pm. As for the last-minute hitch that kept delegates waiting in the hall for two hours? A matter of minor aspects of wording, including the translation of a few terms and the placement of a comma. It was rectified, apologies given, and the jubilation could begin.

It is easy to forget what an extraordinary event these UN talks were. The UNFCCC is one of the last remaining forums in the world where every country, however small, is represented on the same basis and has equal say with the biggest economies. Most modern diplomacy carries on in small, self-selected groups dominated by richer countries – the G7, the G20, the OECD, Opec – but all 196 states have a seat and a say at the UNFCCC. Agreement can only be accepted by consensus.

If this makes for an unwieldy and frustrating process, it is also a fair one. The poorest countries of the world, so often left out of international consideration, are those which have done least to create climate change, but will suffer the most from it. Only at the UN are they heard.

Homes with PV systems fetch higher prices on the US market

Six-State Solar Home Paired-Sales Analysis

In-depth appraisals confirm the value rooftop solar adds to U.S. homes Sandra Adomatis, SRA, LEED Green Associate—Adomatis Appraisal Services Ben Hoen—Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

Overview

Installation of rooftop solar photovoltaic (PV) systems has soared recently, reaching almost 600,000 properties at the end of 2014—with the help of government incentives, innovative financing options such as leased PV, and plunging PV prices. Most of these PV properties are homes. Appraising home PV systems, however, is complex, and data are rarely adequate to provide accurate PV premium estimates. In some markets this is due to the lack of comparable PV home sales. If a lender’s underwriter requires that the sales-comparison approach use the sale of a similar property with a PV system, and such a comparable sale is unavailable, this can result in zero value assigned to the PV system. Such a requirement is an individual lender’s underwriting guideline, not a secondary mortgage market (Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, Federal Housing Administration, or Department of Veterans Affairs) guideline.
Several studies have shown PV systems add value to homes, but only a few were written by real estate appraisers using standard appraisal methods. The other studies used large-scale statistical analyses. Although researchers prefer such approaches, many appraisers and their lending clients prefer paired-sales techniques. Their reasons include lack of familiarity with the statistical methodology, inability to access data for the hundreds of sales or more needed for the large-scale analysis, and the known suitability of paired-sales methods for analyzing the price drivers for a single home. To bridge this gap, an experienced appraiser teamed up with a researcher from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. The resulting first-of-its-kind analysis compares in-depth PV home valuation by local appraisers to statistically derived PV premiums for the same homes. Both approaches produced similar premium results, providing additional strong evidence that PV adds value to homes in a variety of markets.
Data and Methods
The study used appraisal methods to evaluate sales-price premiums for host-owned PV systems on single-unit detached houses in seven areas within six states, most of which were also analyzed in a recent statistical study: the San Diego metro area, Gulf Coast of Florida, Baltimore metro area, Raleigh metro area (North Carolina), Portland and Bend metro areas (Oregon), and southeast portion of Pennsylvania. Ninety-percent of sales took place between 2011 and 2013, and all the PV systems were less than 12 years old.
Seven appraisers were selected to analyze these data based on their knowledge of the local markets, access to multiple listing service data, and experience with PV sales. These appraisers developed 43 home-sales pairs (pairs of comparable PV and non-PV homes) across the seven areas. Contributory-value estimates also were generated for comparison based on gross cost (PV cost before federal, state, and utility incentives), net cost (PV cost after incentives), and income (value of energy savings from PV systems, calculated using the PV Value® tool). See the full study for more detail on methods, data, and caveats.

Results and Conclusions
• After screening for various comparability criteria, appraisers were left with only 20% of the study’s original pool of 208 PV home sales. This highlights the difficulty of conducting comparable-sales analysis on PV homes. Lending appraisal guidelines and expectations should align with this reality and allow other forms of premium estimates (such as income and cost) when sales are not available.
• PV systems garnered premiums of $2.68/W to $4.31/W across states, averaging $3.78/W or about $14,000 for an average-size (3.8-kW) PV system that would have sold in 2011 (Figure 1).
• PV location, age, size, and efficiency must be considered along with local trends such as retail electricity rates and prevailing incentives to generate a credible value for a specific PV system and home.
• Price per watt is the appropriate metric for valuing PV systems, not the premium as a percentage of the home sale price, which varies widely by the size of PV systems and the price range of homes.
• PV premiums were most similar to net PV cost estimates and differed greatly from gross cost estimates.
• PV premiums were higher than PV Value® income estimates in all areas, but the premiums and income estimates were statistically correlated (they moved in the same direction). The PV Value® tool is useful because it is unlikely to overvalue PV systems, and the required data are relatively easy to collect.
• The paired-sales results accord with the statistical results, which imparts confidence in both methods.
• No consistent difference in days on the market was found between PV homes and non-PV homes.
The study also recommends ways to improve PV home valuation: improving the availability of PV home documentation and PV net cost data, providing PV system details in searchable home listings, educating the real estate and PV industries, and enabling access to utility rate, discount rate, and PV system output data.

For more information on the Electricity Markets & Policy Group, visit us at www.emp.lbl.gov For all of our downloadable publications, visit http://emp.lbl.gov/reports

Ontario to Remove Debt Retirement Charge

 

News Release

Ontario to Remove Debt Retirement Charge and Launch Low-Income Electricity Support Program

March 26, 2015

Province Assisting Low-Income Ontarians with Electricity Costs

Ontario is helping make electricity more affordable for families by removing the Debt Retirement Charge for all residential consumers and introducing the Ontario Electricity Support Program for low-income families.

The proposed program, administered through the Ontario Energy Board, would come into effect on January 1, 2016 and would help low-income Ontarians by providing them with financial assistance.

Qualifying individuals could be eligible for a $20 to $50 monthly credit based on the size of the household and income.  For example, a family of four with an annual income of less than $28,000, would be eligible for a $38 monthly credit — a total of about $455 per year.

In addition, the Debt Retirement Charge for all residential consumers will be removed from the bill.

Helping low-income households with the cost of electricity is part of the government’s economic plan for Ontario. The four-part plan is building Ontario up by investing in people’s talents and skills, building new public infrastructure like roads and transit, creating a dynamic, supportive environment where business thrives and building a secure savings plan so everyone can afford to retire.

 

QUICK FACTS

  • Removing the Debt Retirement Charge will save the typical residential electricity ratepayer $5.60 per month.
  • Electricity represents a significantly greater share of monthly expenses for low-income households than for higher-income households. Low-income households spend as much as 10% or more of their income on electricity bills, while consumers in the highest income bracket only use 2% or less.
  • The proposed Ontario Energy Support Program would be ratepayer funded with an estimated charge of less than one dollar a month for a typical residential customer in 2016.
  • The implementation of the Ontario Electricity Support Program would follow the conclusion of the Ontario Clean Energy Benefit on December 31, 2015. The Ontario Clean Energy Benefit started in 2011 for a five-year term and provides approximately $1 billion in relief to eligible consumers annually.

 

BACKGROUND INFORMATION

 

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES

 

QUOTES

“The Ontario Electricity Support Program would provide ongoing assistance directly on the bills of eligible low-income electricity consumers as of January 1, 2016. This targeted assistance would be available to those who need it most, ensuring all Ontarians have continued access to clean and reliable electricity.”  — Bob Chiarelli, Minister of Energy

“LIEN commends the Ontario government for establishing the Ontario Electricity Support Program. This program closes the loop in terms of addressing energy poverty in Ontario and is part of a comprehensive approach to the challenge that LIEN has been advocating for since 2004. We look forward to sharing program information with our stakeholders and the public.”  — Theresa McClenaghan, Executive Director, Canadian Environmental Law Association (CELA) and a Founding Member, The Low-Income Energy Network

“As the largest municipal electricity distribution in Canada serving a diverse, urban community, Toronto Hydro is pleased to have another assistance program available to our more vulnerable customers to help them manage their electricity costs.”  — Anthony Haines, President and CEO, Toronto Hydro

 

CONTACTS

Jennifer Beaudry Minister’s Office 416-319-3573

Lynn Wong Communications Branch 416-326-4542

Ministry of Energy http://www.ontario.ca/energy

 

© Queen’s Printer for Ontario, 2008 – 2015 99 Wellesley Street West 4th floor, Room 4620 Toronto ON M7A 1A1

Green energy sector jobs surpass total oil sands employment

RICHARD BLACKWELL The Globe and Mail

Last updated Tuesday, Dec. 02 2014, 7:26 AM EST

Canada’s green energy sector has grown so quickly and has become such an important part of the economy that it now employs more people than the oil sands.

cd-clean-energy01rb2About $25-billion has been invested in Canada’s clean-energy sector in the past five years, and employment is up 37 per cent, according to a new report from climate think tank Clean Energy Canada to be released Tuesday. That means the 23,700 people who work in green energy organizations outnumber the 22,340 whose work relates to the oil sands, the report says.

ENERGY

Worldwide, 6.5 million people are employed in the clean-energy sector.

“Clean energy has moved from being a small niche or boutique industry to really big business in Canada,” said Merran Smith, director of Clean Energy Canada. The investment it has gleaned since 2009 is roughly the same as has been pumped into agriculture, fishing and forestry combined, she said. The industry will continue to show huge growth potential, beyond most other business sectors, she added.

While investment has boomed, the energy-generating capacity of wind, solar, run-of-river hydro and biomass plants has expanded by 93 per cent since 2009, the report says.

Clean Energy Canada says the industry’s growth has been accelerated by supportive policies in a handful of provinces. However, despite its increased importance to the national economy, clean energy is still not a priority in Ottawa, it says.

Government backing is crucial for this industry, Ms. Smith said, as it has been for our other strategic industries. “Every major industrial sector in Canada – from the aerospace industry to the oil sands – has gotten off the ground with support from the federal government. But in the clean-energy sector, the federal government is really missing in action.”

Not only does the oil industry still get more substantial subsidies, she said, it also eats up a good deal of the country’s diplomatic relations efforts – through the lobbying for the Keystone XL pipeline, for example.

The report acknowledges that Ottawa has set some groundwork for clean energy, by supporting clean-energy demonstration and research projects, cutting energy waste and discouraging the construction of conventional coal-power plants. But it says the federal government needs to do a lot more. Ottawa should create tax supports for renewable technologies, pump infrastructure money into new electrical transmission lines and clean-energy projects, and put a price on carbon, it says.

As for the provinces, Alberta and Saskatchewan in particular should follow Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia in getting into the renewable-energy game, Ms. Smith said. Still, the necessity for this shift is beginning to gain some traction, she said, noting that Alberta Finance Minister Robin Campbell said last week that the province has to “get off the oil train.”

That’s a view shared by Kent Brown, chief executive officer of BluEarth Renewables Inc., a company that focuses on clean energy from the heart of the oil patch in Calgary. This new sector is now “a huge piece of the economy,” Mr. Brown said. “It creates a lot of meaningful jobs.”

BluEarth, which runs a portfolio of hydro, solar and wind projects in British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario and Nova Scotia, has created 35 new jobs in the past four years. That’s a small contribution but one that is being duplicated by hundreds of other firms across the clean-tech sector.

Clean-power generation is also not a slave to commodity prices and the subsequent boom and bust cycle that regularly hits the oil and gas sector, said Mr. Brown, who initially worked in the oil patch but developed a “deep dissatisfaction” with the lack of sustainability of the petroleum sector. While Alberta will remain a key oil player, it can also be a “true leader” renewables, he said.

The Clean Energy Canada report notes that much of the investment for Canada’s clean-tech expansion currently comes outside the country. Of the five largest investors since 2009, just one, Manulife Financial Corp., is Canadian. Two Japanese companies are in that top-five list, along with two German banking groups.

“The fact that foreign investors are coming to Canada to invest in our clean energy, tells us that we have a fantastic resource,” Ms. Smith said. “We need Bay Street to wake up and recognize this is where the puck is going.”

Wind turbine noise not linked to health problems, Health Canada finds

Study involved 1,238 Ontario and P.E.I. homes near turbines

CBC News Posted: Nov 06, 2014 1:51 PM ET Last Updated: Nov 06, 2014 4:28 PM ET

During the study, researchers measured 4,000 hours of wind turbine noise in order to calculate indoor and outdoor noise levels at different homes in the study. (Reuters)

Health Canada: Wind Turbine Noise and Health Study

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A Health Canada study has found no link between exposure to wind turbine noise and negative health effects in people.

Wind turbine noise did not have any measurable effect on illness and chronic disease, stress and sleep quality, Health Canada said.

However, the louder the wind turbine noise was, the more people reported being very or extremely annoyed, the department reported in a summary released today of the Wind Turbine Noise and Health Study.

The $2.1-million study, conducted with Statistics Canada in southern Ontario and Prince Edward Island, was launched in 2012. At that time, groups such as Wind Concerns Ontario had alleged that growing numbers of wind turbines were making people ill.

According to the Canadian Wind Energy Association, there are now enough wind turbines installed across the country to generate up to 8.5 gigawatts of energy, a 62-fold increase since 2000.

The study involved an adult in each of more 1,238 households at varying distances from wind turbines. The participants answered a questionnaire in person, and health measurements were taken, including blood pressure, heart rate, measures of sleep quality, and levels of the stress hormone cortisol in hair samples.

The researchers also measured 4,000 hours of wind turbine noise in order to calculate indoor and outdoor noise levels at different homes in the study.

No effects found on health

The study found no link between wind turbine noise and ill-effects including:

  • Symptoms such as dizziness and migraines.
  • Chronic illnesses such as heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes.
  • Measures of stress levels, such as heart rate, blood pressure and cortisol.
  • Self-reported or measured quality of sleep.

“While some people reported some of the health conditions above, their existence was not found to change in relation to exposure to wind turbine noise,” Health Canada said.

The study did find that as levels of wind turbine noise increased, people reported being more annoyed by various aspects of the turbines, from the noise itself and the aircraft warning lights on top of the turbines to the way they caused shadows to flicker.

Health Canada said the results of the study are considered preliminary until published in peer-reviewed scientific literature. It added that “detailed analysis and results will be shared with Canadians and the international scientific community over the next several months with updates provided on the Health Canada website.”

Health Canada said the results will be used with other scientific research to:

  • Provide advice on health effects of wind turbine noise.
  • Support governments in making decisions, policies and advice related to wind power development.

The principal investigator of the study was David Michaud of Health Canada’s health effects and assessment division. It also involved an expert committee that included more than two dozen government, academic and industry experts in fields ranging from acoustics to neurology and included four international advisers.

Wolfe Island, Five Years of Living With Turbines

Living with wind turbines
Most residents okay with wind turbines after five years
By Brandy Harrison
WOLFE ISLAND — The mere whisper of wind turbines can fuel tensions in communities long before the tall towers and whirring blades are erected, but even after years of living beneath them, those first impressions — love ‘em or hate ‘em — linger on, a Farmers Forum survey suggests.
Across the water from downtown Kingston on Wolfe Island, residents have been staring at 86 wind turbines for five years and time hasn’t healed many wounds or made proponents jump off the bandwagon.
A large majority of islanders either approve or say they aren’t affected by the turbines. But while many say quality of life is unchanged since the 80-metre turbines and their 45-metre blades started capturing the breeze in June 2009, most admit they know people who are still angry.
Wolfe Island hosts the fifth-largest project in Ontario by number of turbines and the third largest by megawatts after the recently-operational 124-turbine South Kent wind project between Tilbury and Ridgetown and the 133-turbine Melancthon wind project near Shelburne.
Farmers Forum handed out pencils and one-page questionnaires on the morning of June 18 as residents lined up in vehicles to get on the ferry to Kingston, boarded the ferry on foot, or ate breakfast at a local restaurant. The island is home to about 1,400 permanent residents and cottagers.
The 10-question survey of 200 islanders (one for every seven residents) prompted five main observations:
— Most people approved of the project from the outset and still do. Of the few opinions that changed, most switched to the pro-turbine camp.
— Money talks. Most people gave wind turbines a passing grade because of the economic impact to the island, including the lucrative annual payment made to the township by the project operator.
— Wind turbines don’t much affect daily life. For 68 per cent of respondents, quality of life is unchanged or has improved.
— But not all is rosy. Most respondents know people who are still upset.
— A few homes have sold but residents haven’t moved off the island in droves.
Here is a closer look at those five conclusions.
1. First impressions last.
An impressive 75.5 per cent of respondents say they approve or are not affected by the turbines. The bulk of residents surveyed — 69 per cent — have stuck to their guns, not wavering from their initial stance. But 12 per cent were swayed by the benefits, and now approve or say the turbines don’t affect them. Two per cent switched the other way.
One woman who was initially concerned notes “I hardly notice them now — much like a hydro pole.”
Total agreement on Wolfe Island is a pipe dream, says one woman.
“There will never be 100 per cent support of turbines, for a variety of reasons. People don’t like change. I know of no negative impact due to turbines on Wolfe Island. Only those who have never supported the project, and they are few, continue to complain,” she says.
The survey included 40 people who either have a turbine on their property or on the property of a relative. Of those, 34 approve, two are on the fence, and four disapprove, citing increased ferry traffic, unsightliness, and noise.
2. Money talks — the turbines are an economic boost.
More than half of Wolfe Islanders surveyed — 106 people — support the project because of its economic impact.
“The island makes good on them,” says one woman.
The project operator, TransAlta, has an amenities agreement with the Township of Frontenac Islands, which includes Wolfe Island, Howe Island, and a few other small islands. The township has used the $645,000 annual payment to upgrade roads, install a cooling system and a roof on the outdoor rink, and support local community groups. For the last few years, $100,000 annually has also been set aside in a trust fund for community project grants.
Respondents also cite environmental benefits (38 people) and appearance (28) as advantages.
“There is a low whirring sound but otherwise they aren’t noticeable. It’s renewable energy. It’s got to be in someone’s backyard,” says a woman whose home is surrounded by three turbines.
Other reasons people give wind power a positive review include road or community improvements (2 people), electricity rate reduction (1), need for power generation (1), and “a reason for our island to exist” (1).
A few people target the detractors. “All this is crap! No valid studies showing they cause any negative effect on humans or wildlife,” says one woman, while another writes that flicker shadow effect “is a joke! Imagine what they would say if they lived by a train or subway.”
3. Turbines are only a small intrusion on everyday life.
Half of survey respondents indicate their quality of life hasn’t changed, but another 18 per cent say quality of life has improved. One woman, who lives one kilometre from turbines, says her sleep apnea is gone.
Others point to infrastructure, community, or economic improvements.
But nearly one-quarter of people surveyed — 48 people — say quality of life has plummeted.
“Not the pastoral setting it once was,” notes one man, while another regrets his “loss of enjoyment of home — cannot sit at front of house due to noise.” One woman simply writes “hate them.”
Ferry overcrowding frustrates 17 residents surveyed and 10 people say their quality of life is worse because turbines have divided families and friends. “Less friendly. People on different sides suspicious,” notes one man.
Other comments point to turbines killing birds, health problems, noise, red lights at night, and unsightliness.
4. Not all is rosy: Some people are still angry.
Sixty-five per cent say they know someone who is still angry — “it’s a lifetime problem,” says one woman — but 10 respondents qualified their answer, saying that continued strife is limited to very few people.
“The few who have complained are just that, complainers,” comments one man. One woman says some people are angry but “oddly enough, not anyone who lives near one.”
Four people, who have turbines, finger jealousy as the problem.
The turbine opponents are the minority: Just shy of one-quarter disapproved of wind turbines.
They have a laundry list of reasons why they pan the wind project: land devaluation (41 people), noise (36), eyesore (35), too many turbines (33), health concerns (32), environmental concerns (31), flicker shadow effect (20), cost (7), inefficient power source (2), increased ferry traffic (2), lights at night (2), killing birds (2), little or no benefit for islanders (2), lack of consultation (1), lack of setback regulation (1), higher power bill (1), and an unknown future after contract expires (1).
5. Few moved away and a few moved in.
Some people have been angry enough to leave the island. Fifty-six people surveyed say they know of at least one house sale connected to the wind project and 10 people say it’s five or more.
“The township threw the residents under the bus,” says a woman who says she knows of 10 homes that were sold because of the turbines.
At the same time, eight survey respondents indicated that they moved to the island since the turbines went up. Only one of them disapproves of wind turbines, saying they’re ineffectual economically.

A Storm Gathers for North American Birds

Audubon’s new study reveals the devastation global warming will likely bring down on birds―and identifies the habitat strongholds they’ll need to hang on.

By Michelle Nijhuis, Audobahn Society

Western North Dakota is famous for its birds. The land here is checkered with neat squares of farm fields and native prairie overlying a scatter of pothole lakes, their curving shorelines shaped tens of thousands of years ago by chunks of melting glaciers. This rich landscape provides critical breeding grounds for millions of birds, from the Mallards and Blue-winged Teal that pour out of the so-called “duck factory” to the Bobolinks of the tallgrass prairie.

But the region is changing fast. Even as birds continue to flock here every summer, expanding agriculture has eaten away at their habitat, and since 2008 the area has witnessed an energy boom of global proportions. Today the fields, prairies, and badlands are punctuated with hundreds of rectangles of raw, orange dirt, each studded with its own set of trailers, storage tanks, and nodding pumpjacks. Every day, companies use hydraulic fracturing to extract nearly a million barrels of oil from the Bakken formation, a layer of shale that lies about two miles beneath the prairie. Roughly 8,000 wells are operating already, and an additional 40,000 could be drilled and fracked in the next 20 to 30 years. In line at one brand-new convenience store, a woman carrying a hardhat sums up the prevailing attitude: “Patience are for doctors.” In the Bakken, the time is now, and the future is a long way off.

Yet the Audubon Report, a groundbreaking new study by Audubon scientists, suggests that this place will become even more important for birds as the planet warms. For the 26 grassland bird species whose breeding ranges are projected to decrease dramatically by 2050, North Dakota will become an increasingly rare island of viable habitat and suitable climate conditions, one of their few remaining refuges. Protecting a portion of the region for birds could mean the difference between survival and extinction for some species.

That’s just one of the critical findings from Audubon’s seven-year investigation into the expected effects of climate change on North American bird populations. And taken together, the news is grim indeed. By 2080, the climate model projects, dozens of avian species across the country could be hurtling toward extinction—and not just birds that are already in trouble. Both the American Avocet and the Yellow-headed Blackbird, familiar sights in western North America, may be under threat before the end of the century. In the Great Plains, the Chestnut-collared Longspur’s range could shrink by 70 percent, while suitable breeding grounds for the Baird’s Sparrow could disappear entirely. The Piping Plover, an icon of the Atlantic Flyway, may vanish from many eastern shores.

The numbers are stark: Of the 588 species Audubon studied, 314 are likely to find themselves in dire straits by 2080. Unless, that is, the oil boomers in the Bakken—and everyone else—start to consider the future. Unless we begin to reduce the severity of global warming and buy birds more time to adapt to the changes coming their way.

Global climate is changing in ways not seen for millennia, and we know humans bear at least part of the responsibility. We also know that these changes are affecting animals large and small. For years scientists have been telling us that the ranges of bears, butterflies, and many other species are shifting north and toward the poles; that bird migrations are changing time and course; and that pollinators are trying to adjust to new flowering schedules. These alarming observations are only the beginning.

To make predictions about the effects of climate change on animals, scientists need years, if not decades, of solid, detailed data on where and when species have been in the past, and such data are very rare. Except when it comes to birds.

For more than a century, volunteer birdwatchers throughout the Americas have contributed observations to Audubon’s annual Christmas Bird Count. Begun as a way to assess the health of bird populations, data from the annual census are now key to predicting birds’ responses to climate change. Using hundreds of thousands of standardized observations from both the Christmas Bird Count and the North American Breeding Bird Survey, Audubon’s chief scientist, Gary Langham, and his colleagues were able to describe the “climate envelope” for each of 588 North American bird species—pinpointing the range of temperatures, amount of rainfall, and other climate characteristics of the habitats occupied by each species. Then they looked for each combination of characteristics within sophisticated computer projections of the global climate, finding the future climate envelopes—and, by extension, the potential future ranges—of the species and mapping them to a resolution of 10 square kilometers. The study projects, for instance, that the Baird’s Sparrow’s range will shrink more than 90 percent by 2050 to just a small area within the Bakken.

It’s the broadest and most detailed study of its kind for North America, and it’s the closest thing we have to a field guide to the future of these birds. “It’s really important new information,” says Stuart Butchart, head of science for BirdLife International, who wasn’t involved with the study. “It shows us which species we need to be most worried about, and it helps us understand the whole suite of new challenges that these species will be facing in the future.”

Those challenges are daunting. According to the Audubon analysis, which is currently undergoing peer review for journal publication, more than half of North America’s bird species will be “climate-threatened” or “climate-endangered” by the end of the century—under a range of future emissions scenarios. The 188 climate-threatened birds face losing more than half of their current range by 2080, although they have the potential to shift into new areas. The 126 climate-endangered species are projected to lose more than 50 percent of their current range by 2050, with no net gain from range expansion.

The study was done very conservatively, says Terry Root, a Stanford University biologist and Audubon board member who studies how wildlife responds to climate change. “The findings are showing us the best possible future, not the worst possible future,” she says. And even in that best of futures, where North America is two to four degrees Celsius warmer, 314 bird species could struggle to find places they can survive.

“That was just a punch in the gut,” says Langham. “When you realize that only nine bird species have gone extinct in continental North America in modern times, and then you see that we’re looking at 314 North American bird species at risk by the end of this century—it just takes your breath away.”

 

Some bird species will be able to adapt to new climatic conditions, but certainly not all. And while many people assume that climate change will simply shift habitats farther north or to higher elevations, for the 126 climate-endangered species, including the Baird’s Sparrow and other Bakken familiars, their climatic ranges are not only shifting but also dramatically shrinking. If we stay on our current carbon-spewing path, some of those species may have nowhere to go.

As a field guide to the future, the Audubon Report will help inform conservation investments, highlighting places that will continue to serve as valuable habitats in the decades to come. The study suggests that some important North American bird ranges will persist in place, acting as what Langham calls “species strongholds” as the climate changes. The prairies and pothole lakes of North Dakota are one such stronghold. Another is Appalachia.

The deciduous forests of West Virginia, North Carolina, and Virginia are home to several species of vulnerable warblers, notably the Cerulean Warbler. The tiny sky-blue bird, which nests high in treetops, is thought by some to be the fastest-declining songbird in North America; its winter habitat in the northern Andes has been dramatically reduced by coffee plantations, while its summer habitat in Appalachia is being steadily fragmented by, among other things, coal mining and low-density residential development. As the climate changes, the Audubon analysis shows, much of the Cerulean Warbler’s current range in the eastern United States is likely to become unsuitably wet and hot, and Appalachia’s forests will become an ever more important refuge for it and other warblers.

Audubon North Carolina has already begun to promote the protection of Appalachian land for warblers, working with state parks and private landowners to conserve the largest remaining swaths of intact habitat. The climate study, says Curtis Smalling, Audubon North Carolina’s director of land bird conservation, emphasizes the importance of that work. “If we can save the biggest blocks across a wide elevation range, then we will be able to slow these declines, and perhaps give these species a chance to adapt,” he says. “Identifying these strongholds makes the need for protection even clearer.”

For Smalling, the long-term perspective of the analysis is galvanizing. Like other conservationists on the ground, he’s most often dealing with emergency cases—species that are already critically endangered, for instance, or whose habitat is already doomed by development or climate change. The analysis not only highlights areas that will serve species for the long term but also points to now-common species that need preventive care. For instance, the study projects that the Ovenbird, a relatively common species that also breeds in Appalachian forests, will lose more than 90 percent of its climatic range in North Carolina by 2080.

“The hard thing, but also the nice thing, is that this study lengthens our time horizon,” says Smalling. “It thus forces us to say, ‘Hmm, what do we want this to look like 50 or 100 years from now?’”

Of course, the future is impossible to predict with certainty. To build the most accurate model possible, Langham’s team included only climatic variables and focused on birds within the United States and Canada. “If we included sea-level rise, prey base, species competition, all the complexities of ecology, it’d take decades, and birds might go extinct before we were done and even knew they were at risk,” says Langham. “What we have is a set of predictions that gives us a good idea of which species are most sensitive to the projected change in the near future. It allows us to make science-based management decisions, and adapt as we go.”

That said, Langham’s team is already working to incorporate additional data to generate even more robust projections. Next they will try to clarify how places the current model points to as climatically suitable for species in the future could fall short in other ways: They could be covered with asphalt, or be impossible for a species to reach because of distance or fragmentation. The habitat could be covered in trees—a possibly insurmountable challenge for a bird adapted to life among grasses. “If the right climate conditions for a species are in boreal forest, but the species has no idea how to make a living in boreal forest, that’s a problem,” says Langham. That’s why strongholds in places like the Bakken—areas that provide habitat for many species now and will continue to do so for many decades—are critically important to conserve, he says.

Audubon scientists would also like to expand the study’s scope to Mexico and south to Chile, into the wintering grounds of many migratory bird species. They haven’t been able to do that yet because the detailed, long-term observations so important to the Audubon model aren’t widely available for countries to the south. Cagan Sekercioglu, a University of Utah ecologist who studies the causes and consequences of bird extinctions around the world, says that while globally available digital apps like eBird are helping researchers collect more observations from more countries, the data gaps remain significant. “For these kinds of studies to be useful for actual conservation actions, they have to be done at a very high resolution, with very detailed data,” he says. As other countries in the Western Hemisphere start contributing information, the models could forecast which wintering grounds to the south are most vital to safeguard.

Despite the model’s limitations, Langham says its predictions are crucial. “There are always asterisks, always caveats,” he says. “But we can choose to not do anything—which means being wrong for sure—or we can use this tool to figure out what the future holds and guide conservation efforts that give birds a chance to adapt.”

In and around the Bakken oil patch, the Audubon Report adds another level of detail to what many conservationists and land managers already knew: The region’s grasslands are important, endangered, and all too often ignored. Karen Smith, a Midwest native who managed the Lostwood National Wildlife Refuge from 1977 until her retirement in 2001, remembers her first visits to the Dakota prairie. “Why do I love it? It’s like trying to explain why you fall in love with someone,” she says. “It’s the wide-open space, the uniqueness, the unknowns. We’re still discovering new microorganisms in prairie soil. It’s unbelievable.”

When Smith arrived here nearly 40 years ago, much of the refuge’s grassland was being taken over by aspen and other woody species. She started grazing and controlled-burn programs, a combination that helped restore many acres of grassland and encouraged Upland Sandpipers and other prairie birds to return to the refuge to breed.

Young Common Loons, like this juvenile left high and dry when Wyoming’s Bergman Reservoir was drained for irrigation, will become an increasingly rare sight in the United States’ northern lakes as the climate warms and the species’ breeding grounds shift into Canada.  Photo Credit: Michael Quinton/Minden Pictures/National Geographic Creative

Smith still lives near the northern edge of the refuge, in an energy-efficient straw-bale house she built with her family and friends, and her front windows face Lostwood. But just beyond the low hills that surround her home, pumpjacks dip over new wells on the edge of the oilfields. Federal budget cuts have made it difficult for current refuge staff to maintain her decades of restoration work, and bit by bit, oil wells, gravel pits, and the new and wider roads that accompany them are popping up around her.

Kory Richardson, the current manager of Lostwood, is working to protect both the refuge and the prairie habitat around it. In North Dakota the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service manages nearly 300,000 acres of wildlife refuges and holds conservation easements on hundreds of thousands of acres of private wetlands. The easements are primarily designed to prevent wetlands from being converted into farmland, but they also help protect wetlands and prairies alike—the habitat strongholds that emerge from Audubon’s climate model—from some of the worst effects of the oil boom.

Richardson oversees both the Lostwood refuge and 176,000 acres of nearby wetland easements. When an oil company proposes sinking a well within an easement, Richardson and others negotiate with the company and the private landowner over the placement of well pads, roads, and pipelines. The easements preclude agriculture, not oil wells, so in most cases, the Fish and Wildlife Service doesn’t have any legal power to stop or even limit the oil development. But in many instances, the agency has convinced companies to avoid prairie potholes and other key habitats within the easements.

On the busy highways of western North Dakota, or on the frantic main streets of the region’s towns and cities, it’s easy to be daunted by the Bakken boom. There’s no question that it’s a pervasive, powerful force, and that Richardson and other managers have too little money, power, and time to protect wildlife from all of its impacts. But from the top of the latticed steel viewing tower in the middle of the Lostwood refuge, pothole lakes glint in the sunlight, and the region’s vast open spaces dwarf even the multiplying well pads. There’s still a lot of habitat worth saving.

Michelle Nijhuis reports on science and the environment. Her work appears in National Geographic and other publications. She lives in Washington State.