Wind power, and lots of it, is any government’s energy fantasy. It is clean and renewable, and diversifies the energy supply. The green factor buys votes. There is even a stark architectural elegance to wind turbines, with their white blades lazily sweeping the horizon. What’s not to like?
Plenty, it turns out. In May, the Alberta government effectively put wind development on hold because the province’s transmission grid could not handle wind power’s rising megawatts. This week, it was Ontario’s turn. Ontario has the greatest amount of wind energy in the country. It wanted a lot more. Those plans died when the Liberals put a freeze on the development of wind farms in lakes, the industry’s greatest potential growth area.
The surprise announcement put Trillium Power’s effort to install up to 142 turbines in Lake Ontario, south of Belleville, on hold. The project would have been the largest single wind development on the continent and the first offshore one of any size. In theory, it would have supplied enough electricity for 200,000 homes. The government cited “environmental” concerns, but was otherwise vague. Presumably that meant it had concerns about the turbines’ effect on bird migrations, aquatic species, noise levels and navigation.
At the same time, local residents blocked Enbridge’s plans to erect 110 turbines on the shore of Lake Huron. The project awaits hearings at the Ontario Municipal Board.
With Alberta and Ontario taking a leap backward on the wind power front, Canada’s renewable energy plans have taken a big blow. Governments and private wind power developers can share the blame. This was one industry whose potential was hyped to absurd levels.
Take Ontario. When Dalton McGuinty and his crew took office three years ago, they promised to scrap the coal-burning generating plants and replace them with . . . well, with something. One of those somethings was wind power.
To encourage development, the government offered a fat subsidy in the form of high electricity prices. It would pay just under 8 cents a kilowatt-hour for electricity generated by big wind farms, and 11 cents for power from small farms, compared with the mere 3.3 cents received by Ontario Power Generation. The gold rush was on. If the government had any serious concerns about the political, financial and environmental correctness of wind farms, ranging from the NIMBY factor to the cost of building or rebuilding transmission lines to accommodate the power, it sure kept them to itself.
Meanwhile, the wind industry, backed by brand-name greenies like David Suzuki, promoted the idea of virtually limitless, round-the-clock, Kyoto-friendly power, and cleaner air too. The landscape would be dotted with wind turbines, not smokestacks. The technology would create scads of jobs. Canada would become an alternative energy development centre. Denmark was the inspiration. There, wind power provides about 20 per cent of the electricity. The figure should reach 25 per cent by 2008.
If it all sounded too good to be true, it’s because it was.
Lost in the hype was the fact that wind turbines are a notoriously unreliable source of power for the simple reason that the wind is highly erratic and unpredictable. A new report by Tom Adams of Energy Probe reveals some of the shortcomings. He studied wind data between May and October from three fairly large commercial Ontario wind farms. Their average “capacity factor,” he found, was only 22.3 per cent.
The capacity factor is a crude but important measure of efficiency. A generating plant (whether coal, gas, nuclear or hydro) running at a 100-per-cent capacity factor means it’s pumping out the juice 24/7 with no down time to fix technical glitches, and no transmission problems. Running flat out all the time is impossible. But the wind farms – running at about a fifth of their theoretical capacity, at least in the Energy Probe analysis – are at the low end of the scale among generators. A wind farm in Quebec, called Le Nordais, had a capacity factor of only 18 per cent in its first five years of operation. Ontario’s coal plants generally run at a 70- to 80-per-cent capacity factor, the nuclear plants somewhat higher.
Energy Probe also found that wind generation tends to fall in the morning, when people are getting out of bed and electricity demand rises, and in the hot summer months, when electricity output is needed most to keep the air conditioners humming. In other words, the wind turbines’ production is out of sync with peak demand. Other regions may produce better results, of course. Southern Ontario is not the windiest place in the country.
The green revolution, if it’s coming at all, will be delayed in Canada. The Alberta and Ontario governments have admitted as much by throwing the wind industry into limbo. Time for Plan B, if there is one. Nukes anyone?
By Eric Reguly
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