It would take legislative, attitudinal and business-model changes to work here
While British Columbians wait to see if their first wind farms will actually be built, tens of thousands of Albertans are already cooking dinner, drying socks, or lighting their homes and businesses with electrons generated by the restless prairie winds.
It’s hard to square with the caricature of an oil-obsessed, red-neck land, but nearly 350 modern windmills – winged giants that look like children’s pinwheels on long, skinny, off-white sticks – have sprouted near here in southwestern Alberta within the last four or five years, mostly in close-ordered ranks on wind-swept ridges between this town of 3,666 and similar-sized Fort MacLeod a half hour east on Highway 3.
Day in, day out – on all but a handful of calm days when there’s not enough wind to make them spin, or on extra-windy ones when they shut down to protect themselves – the windmills quietly churn out enough electricity to match a mid-sized coal plant.
Meanwhile in British Columbia, despite dire warnings about running short of electricity and endless talk about embracing environmental values, it has been a mere two months since BC Hydro accepted three wind farm proposals along with 35 other proposals to generate electricity for the provincial grid, and they’re still not a done deal. They still have hurdles to clear – financial or environmental or both – before construction can start.
There was a little lull in windmill construction here this summer because of limitations of transmission lines between here and the energy-hungry market in Calgary, but Alberta’s wind power industry already adds up to about two per cent of the province’s electrical needs. This may not sound like much – unless you assume that it’s just a start. Or unless you think about the various scenarios forecast for oil and natural gas – at best destined to get ever-more expensive as the cheap supplies dry up, and at worst doomed to run out. Or unless you consider how ever-rising demand is sopping up all the electricity the continent can produce, and turning a hydro-rich province like B.C. from a prosperous exporter into a place that can’t get by without buying extra electricity from our neighbours.
Yet even with these sobering realities, Alberta, both rich in and obsessed with fossil fuels, seems an unlikely province to become a Canadian leader in this green energy. But three factors drive its growth, and only one of them – technology – is, for now, readily transferable to British Columbia.
The other two factors driving the growth of Alberta’s wind industry – the regulatory climate and the tax incentives offered to companies that invest in wind power generation – are made in Alberta.
And it would take changes in attitude, legislation and the way BC Hydro does business to make them work here.
Fifty-two-year-old Jason Edworthy grew up fascinated by farm windmills. By the early 1980s he was working in the oilpatch by day, and with Vision Quest, a start-up wind-power company he co-founded, whenever he could find time.
In those days, he says, he and his partners assumed they’d be dealing with customers who wanted to be off-grid – self-sufficient on acreages or farms.
Deregulation changed that. Alberta created an energy market where customers could choose power providers. Edworthy found himself working on big on-grid projects, first with Vision Quest working in partnership with the giant TransAlta energy company and then, since 2002 when TransAlta bought his company, as its managing director of market development.
“At first wind power was a bit like the organic food industry,” he says. “It was really expensive.
“Now it’s a commodity you can buy almost anywhere.”
TransAlta has remained a producer and wholesaler, relying on retail companies to recruit customers. That’s a vital role in Alberta’s deregulated market.
Enmax, the largest customer, now rolls 10 per cent wind power into large commercial contracts – a practice that, as technology nudges down the price, still allows it to be competitive.
Though TransAlta gets a federal subsidy of one cent a kilowatt hour, wind economics in Alberta rely most heavily on customers who voluntarily put their hands up to pay a premium to go green.
Initially, says Tom Rainwater, TransAlta’s vice-president of corporate development and marketing, consumers who signed on paid an extra $5 a month and were in turn promised that 10 per cent of the power they consumed had been generated by wind.
They still pay $5, but as the wind power price falls, now it’s for 30 per cent.
That flat fee is, of course, a little bit of smoke and mirrors – there’s no way to know where the electrons that power a consumer’s device actually originate. But the willingness of consumers to pay a premium to support wind power has fuelled the rapid expansion of the industry in the last decade. And Rainwater said TransAlta is poised for another growth spurt in about 18 months when some technical issues, including transmission capacity to markets like Calgary, have been resolved.
TransAlta’s first wind farm, built at McBride Lake in partnership with its big retailer, Enmax, looks every bit a prototype on which others are based.
But McBride was built in 2002 – a couple of generations ago in the head-spinning world of wind technology. Huge as the towers and blades appear as you drive under two of them on a grid road south of Fort McLeod and see the blade tips hurtling down at speeds of up to 240 km/h, they’re puny compared to the even newer wind farms you see from Highway 3 a little further west.
The 114 McBride units have blades of 47 metres – barely half the 90-metre length of the giants down the road at Summerview, where just 38 units produce almost as much electricity. This is enough to power about 30,000 homes. The annual reduction in CO2 – not to mention other noxious gases – for a wind-powered home would be equivalent to not driving the family car 30,000 km.
Doubling the blade size results in hugely more output. Bigger rotors revolve more slowly, but with much greater power and thus they can generate far more electrons.
So, too, with wind speed. When it doubles, it produces eight times more power.
Thus “prospecting” for wind farm sites mixes both art and science. Windmills aren’t built here just because southwestern Alberta is windy; they’re erected in optimum micro-climates in a region where wind speeds vary so much that a windmill at one end of a long line of them may be turning visibly more slowly than those at the other end.
Edworthy says he twigged to the potential of McBride Lake when he saw fences festooned with wind-driven garbage near the ridge. Other clues were bent trees with branches clustered on the leeward side, and, of course, what local people told him.
Even so, Vision Quest built its first windmill – a $1-million test unit – in the wrong place. It’s on the east side of a road to the site. When its output was disappointing, the others were built on the west side of the road, and they are now producing significantly better than the first one.
Most farmers here are eager to have windmills on their land. They can grow crops or graze cows right up to the 13-metre bases of the units, and they lose only about two per cent of a field when a wind farm is erected. In return they’re paid from a low of $1,500 a year for each small unit to as much as $7,000 for big ones.
Local governments also like windmills. The rural municipality of Pincher Creek, for example, is now getting about 17 per cent of its revenue from wind farms, and TransAlta alone pays
$1.2 million a year in taxes in the area.
“I used to come to an area and say, ‘I want to invest a lot of money, hire a bunch of local people and pay taxes. How do you like me so far?’ ” Edworthy says. “Now I use a little less of a P.T. Barnum approach – people are usually already glad to see me.”
Wining local acceptance is a key in site selection, Edworthy says. But at
$3 million a pop for a big new unit, companies like his are fussy about other aspects of where they build.
In addition to optimum winds, there must be both a market and transmission lines or, at the least, easy terrain to build them on. This could be a deal-killer in many of B.C.’s windiest sites, which are often on rugged and remote terrain.
“Then we look for environmental showstoppers – flyways for birds, and that sort of thing.”
Early forays into wind generation raised concerns – many of them justified – about bird kill, he says, but the industry has learned a lot since then.
“We’ve learned to avoid wetlands, and things like gaps in ridges favoured by raptors.”
The result? In an industry that has reduced average bird kill to two per unit per year, TransAlta’s monitoring shows bird loss of just 0.5 birds per unit per year, and as low as 0.15 at some sites.
Finally, even though he personally sees his machines as things of beauty, there are esthetic considerations.
For example, “Would you build a wind farm on Long Beach?” he asks. “I wouldn’t.”
By Don Cayo, Vancouver Sun
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