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Saskatchewan currently has 221 megawatts of operating wind capacity spread across 143 turbines.
"Technology is the most potent agent of change. Thanks to technology, we have made remarkable progress in the past few decades in many areas, including in health, education and material prosperity. Ironically, it is the side effects of these advances that are now creating the largest challenges of our time, specifically when it comes to the degradation of the environment. So why not also use the power of technology to take on these challenges and restore the natural balance?" -Boyan Slat, CEO and founder of The Ocean Cleanup
It is hard to resist the comforting logic Boyan Slat offers. Boyan’s technology company, after all, promises to clean up the massive quantities of plastic already clogging the oceans of the world. Technology will fix technology’s damage. That is the promise. In Saskatchewan at least, that is not a simple process.
A modern windmill is an awe-inspiring thing. In the distance, its blades appear to circle at restful speed, far from being harmful. Even at close proximity, and in spite of the intimidating scale of the structure, it seems benign, even benevolent. The saline lakes and rolling hillsides in southwestern Saskatchewan provide an elegant background for the giant turbines and it is in this setting that their apparent banality turns quite deadly—if you are a bird.
In September 2016, a proposal for a 177-megawatt turbine installation at Chaplin Lake was denied because of concerns over threats to birdlife and the natural habitats on the site. Conservationists lobbied for more comprehensive study and that science, said the provincial government, was what finally decided against the project.
But wind energy is good, is it not? Or at least better than fossil fuel? It would mean burning less coal. It would mean an alternative to nuclear energy and the problem of spent uranium disposal.
Yes, possibly, but it’s complicated.
The landscape south of Indian Head is like that around Chaplin Lake. It rolls just enough to obscure what lies ahead on the dirt road. Small bodies of water interrupt farming enough to create low, dense forests for birds and other wildlife. Lorne Scott’s farm, where he grew up and has farmed for more than 40 years, is more dense with trees than the surrounding land. His farmland is reminiscent of cultivation practices from the 1930s and early 1940s. The wooded areas are at least equal in size to the neatly tilled land. Scott clearly invests many hours weaving small machinery through the hills.
For this, and many other reasons, Scott is uniquely qualified to measure how technology and conservation are going to cross paths in Saskatchewan. He started his working career at the Museum of Natural History, now the Royal Saskatchewan Museum. Despite not having formal training, it seemed a natural step from building bluebird boxes for the family homestead and lobbying his father to stop bulldozing trees to expand the crops. His presidency of the Saskatchewan Wildlife Federation in the 1970s coincided with his involvement with conservationist groups that endures to this day. “I was,” he says with no hint of boasting, “the only Minister of the Environment who has been president of the Wildlife Federation and Nature Saskatchewan and I’m active in Ducks Unlimited.
“Probably the biggest experience I had prior to government was with the Rafferty-Alameda dam fiasco. Grant Devine announced it in Estevan the day I became president of the Wildlife Federation in Lloydminster. Some of the ranchers down in the Goodwater area and some other concerned residents contacted us asking what we could do. We fell into it and the more we looked, the more underhanded this was. We went to court three times and we won three times but the dams were built. At the end of the day we maintained our credibility. The dams were built, Minot still floods, we still need power, we’re still burning coal down at Estevan.”
As Minister of Saskatchewan Environment and Resource Management from 1995 to 1999, Scott dealt daily with the forces that technologically-driven development exerts on the natural environment. “It was tooth and nail, conservation over development, whether it was in provincial parks or in hog barns. I remember one case where the community was concerned about a hog barn because the holding pond was something like 20 feet above their water supply. People were told to not worry about it because it was held by a plastic liner.
“So Chaplin is the same thing,” he continues. “These farmers go out, they’re having trouble making a bit of money on marginal lands. But developers offer money if they allow some wind towers. I think, hopefully, we’ve got into the Province’s process, that from now on they will say no automatically if it’s on native grass, if it’s within a certain distance of the Qu’Appelle or the Saskatchewan River system or protected and important bird areas that those are off limits. Well, that should have been in place to begin with. The Chaplin project was right in the flyway on the north side of Chaplin Lake where millions of shorebirds migrate.
“Ultimately, wind and solar energy are good. But not at any cost.”
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