Canada’s wind power business could face a tough year in 2007, with increasing doubts about this green energy source promising to buffet the industry.
While a record amount of wind power is likely to come on-stream next year, with close to a dozen projects across the country set to be commissioned, questions about the safety of the turbines and the reliability of the power they generate are blowing across the landscape.
The controversy comes as the industry is blossoming: According to numbers compiled by the Canadian Wind Energy Association (CanWEA), projects generating close to 1,000 megawatts of wind power are scheduled to be completed in 2007.
That would outpace 2006’s record installations, where wind power capacity more than doubled nationally to almost 1,500 MW.
As much as 450 MW of that new capacity is scheduled to come on-stream in Quebec, with another 275 MW in Ontario and 135 MW in Alberta.
CanWEA president Robert Hornung said delays might slow down the launch of a few of the projects set to be complete in the coming year, “[but] I feel pretty confident in saying that we’re looking at probably a minimum of 600 MW of projects next year.”
Each 100 MW of wind power is enough to continuously supply a city about the size of Lethbridge, Alta.
There are two main controversies that have popped up to trouble the wind power business: local opposition to turbines from people who live nearby, and concerns over the reliability and efficiency of the electricity produced by wind farms. Increasingly, the two issues are being linked.
The fight against wind development from residents who live near planned projects has taken on a life beyond the usual NIMBY (not in my backyard) complaints. Wind opponents are now using broad arguments about wind reliability to bolster their other concerns over noise, bird safety, vibration and destruction of natural vistas.
That’s going to accelerate in 2007, said Tom Adams, executive director of Toronto energy watchdog Energy Probe.
“The NIMBYs are going to be more capable [and better able] to analyze and bring serious arguments, rather than just aesthetic concerns, into the discussions.”
Energy Probe helped crank up the debate in November when it issued a report that said wind turbines are much less reliable than expected. Data collected from three wind farms near Lake Huron during the summer and fall showed the turbines produced only 22.3 per cent of their potential capacity for electricity generation. Another problem: The wind often died in mid-morning when customer demand was gearing up.
Mr. Adams concedes that other data he has seen since that report was completed – from other wind projects across the country – show some wind farms have much higher energy production than those in his study. Still, he said, the output of even the most productive wind farms is never at the level forecast before the projects begin.
The concern over the consistency of wind energy has prompted the Alberta government to put a temporary cap on that province’s wind power production. The province doesn’t want more than 900 MW of wind – it now has close to 400 MW – because its unreliability could destabilize the power grid at higher levels.
CanWEA’s Mr. Hornung, whose organization lobbies on behalf of wind power builders and producers, says he’s confident Alberta will lift the cap once it adds new “tools” such as sophisticated wind forecasting, better geographic diversity of turbine construction, and better use of links with power grids in adjacent jurisdictions.
“I’m extremely confident that we’ll be moving well beyond 900 MW in Alberta,” Mr. Hornung said.
He also said he was “really frustrated” by the Energy Probe study of Ontario, because it was based on such limited data from a small number of wind farms that are close together. Having wind farms spread across the province will dramatically cut the variability of wind power, Mr. Hornung said. “The wind does not start or stop blowing all over Ontario at the same time.”
One area Energy Probe and CanWEA agree on: There needs to be much more study and analysis of how wind fits into the whole energy picture.
But research in other countries has also cast doubts on the long-term role of wind power as a major contributor to energy production.
In Britain, a report from the Renewable Energy Foundation (REF) – an independent non-profit organization that evaluates “green” energy – found that most onshore wind projects in that country were underperforming. REF also projected that wind farms will be able to generate a relatively small proportion of Britain’s power over the long term, and that there’s a need for a much broader spectrum of renewable energy sources.
Mr. Adams predicts that in the coming years, the wind industry – particularly in Ontario – will have to shift its focus to offshore wind farms. Offshore turbines will experience greater wind speeds, with fewer safety concerns from blade failure or icing, he said. While rare, blades have occasionally broken in European installations and flown considerable distances. And ice is sometimes thrown off moving blades when temperatures are low.
Offshore wind farms are not going to pop up in the short term, however, because the Ontario government has frozen offshore development until it thoroughly examines the environmental impacts.
Mr. Adams also thinks there could be long-term potential for turbines suspended high above the ground from helium balloons, and for electricity storage systems that will help balance uneven wind power generation.
Canada’s biggest wind farms
Site Capacity (MW) Owner
Prince, Ont. 189 Brookfield Power
Centennial, Sask. 149 SaskPower
Baie-des-Sables, Que. 110 Cartier Energy
Erie Shores, Ont. 99 Clean Power Income Fund
St. Leon, Man. 84 Airsource Power Fund
McBride Lake, Alta. 75 Vision Quest
Soderglen, Alta. 71 Nexen
Summerview, Alta. 68 Vision Quest
Malanctho, Ont. 68 Canadian Hydro Developers
SOURCE: CANADIAN WIND ENERGY ASSOC.
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By Richard Blackwell
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