The burning of fossil fuels for energy production contributes significantly to the accumulation of atmospheric greenhouse gases, and thus climate change (Asif & Muneer, 2007; IPCC, 2001). As a result, the implementation of renewable energy is gaining prevalence on a global scale (Swofford & Slattery, 2010). Wind energy, a source of renewable energy, is generated through the use of wind turbines. Wind is used to spin the blades of a turbine, turning a generator and creating electricity. In order to generate significant amounts of energy, multiple wind turbines are often constructed to form a wind farm. Although the production of wind power is not associated with significant greenhouse gas emissions, environmental and social consequences associated with wind turbine construction and operation still exist. Siting a wind farm without proper consideration for all environmental and social factors can result in environmentally detrimental consequences, economic loss, public backlash, safety concerns, and infeasible planning (Aschewanden et al., 2018; Clarke, 2011; Leung & Yang, 2012; Mulinazzi & Zheng, 2014; Petersen et al., 1998; Saidur et al., 2011; Swofford & Slattery, 2010; Tegou, et al., 2010). Thus, it is important to ensure that these factors are addressed throughout the process of siting a wind farm. EDP Renewables is currently in the process of siting Sharp Hills Wind Farm in a municipality of Southeastern Alberta known as the Special Areas. The Special Areas are made up of Special Area 2, Special Area 3, and Special Area 4.
Land classifications provide information on the type and use of a specified land parcel, and should be considered when siting a wind farm to avoid installation on ecologically or agriculturally valuable features. In addition, avian population distributions should be considered, as wind farm installation introduces the risk of collision to these animals (Aschewanden et al., 2018). Past studies have shown the installation of wind farms to result in avian mortality, the development of avoidance behaviours, and habitat disruption (Aschewanden et al., 2018; Leung & Yang, 2012; Saidur et al., 2011). Finally, the slope of the site must be considered, as this factor is directly related to the amount of energy that will be produced by the wind farm. Wind power at the earth’s surface is dependent on the topography of the landscape, as smoother terrain with no obstacles promotes a greater wind speed (Petersen et al., 1998). Orography also plays an important role, as wind speeds accelerate at the summit of hills, cliffs, ridges, and escarpments, and decelerate in valleys (Petersen et al., 1998).
In addition to environmental factors, social factors have significant influence over wind farm siting. While wind farms provide environmental and economic benefits, residents of areas closer to potential wind farm sites may not necessarily be supportive of their construction (Swofford & Slattery, 2010). Due to the mechanical nature of wind turbines, as well as the flow of air over the blades of the turbine, wind farms can produce significant noise pollution (Saidur et al., 2011). Some studies have found the noise produced by wind farms to be correlated with increased stress, headaches, sleep disturbance, and hearing loss (Leung & Yang, 2012). Wind turbines could also cause shadow flickering as a result of rotating blades and the reflection of sunlight, leading to visual disturbances (Saidur et al., 2011). Furthermore, the presence of wind turbines may degrade the perceived scenic or aesthetic value of the environment (Leung & Yang, 2012). Residents opposed to the installation of wind farms have often expressed concern regarding the effects of noise and visual disturbance on their property value, and tourism companies have expressed concern regarding loss of business (Latinopoulos & Kechagia, 2015; Saidur et al., 2011). Proximities to residential areas, schools, hospitals, and tourism facilities should be considered when siting a wind farm. The accessibility of the wind farm needs to also be considered, and thus proximities to roads, power grids, and potential transmission line blockage should be accounted for (Baban & Parry, 2001; Tegou et al., 2010). Proximity to airports must be considered, as wind turbulence created by turbines can disrupt the operation of smaller aircrafts (Mulinazzi & Zheng, 2014). Finally, the location of other large infrastructure or landscape features must also be considered, as a wind farm cannot be sited on top of pre-existing infrastructures or features, including wind farms, solar farms, mines, and bodies of water.
While previous studies have primarily investigated the effects of wind farms on habitat, wildlife, noise, and visual impacts, there is little research available on the effect of wind farms on groundwater. A guide published by the Northern Ireland Environment Agency suggests that the installation of turbines could result in groundwater pollution via the disturbance of contaminated soils or a fuel leak, and the operation of turbines could alter the groundwater storage capacity and flow, as well as result in pollution via fuel leak (Northern Ireland Environment Agency, 2015). Groundwater is the primary source of drinking water for residents in many rural areas (Alberta Agriculture and Forestry, 2001; Environment and Climate Change Canada, 2013). As a result, it is important that the quality of groundwater be maintained for human health and safety. However, due to a lack of scientific research on this topic, the effects of wind farms on groundwater are not well-understood. To avoid the risk of groundwater contamination, the proximity of a wind farm to surrounding aquifers could be considered, but currently there is limited research on this topic.
Wind farm siting is inherently a spatial problem, as it involves spatial planning. When locating the optimal site for a windfarm, evaluations are based on spatial criteria. Geographic information systems (GIS) can be applied when siting windfarms, as they provide a decision-support tool capable of accounting for multiple spatial criteria. GIS can be used to conduct a multi-criteria evaluation (MCE) for the assessment of different spatial options (Latinopoulos & Kechagia, 2015).
The purpose of this research was to implement a GIS model to identify the environmentally and socially optimal locations in Special Areas 2, 3, and 4 of Southeastern Alberta for the installation of Sharp Hills Wind Farm.