It seems every time you turn on the television, adjust the radio dial or flip through the pages of your favorite newspaper, a new wind farm proposal is being announced.
Across Canada there are currently 26 wind farm developments slated to be in place by 2012.
This time last year, Ventus Energy Inc, a Toronto-based wind energy developer, and the MÃ©tis Energy Corporation combined efforts with plans to develop a $2.5 million dollar wind farm near Churchill Falls.
The project will dish out an estimated capacity factor of 1,000 megawatts.
On the island, Ventus energy also has its hands on the development of a 25 MW wind farm in Fermuse that will be combined with another 25 MW project operated by NeWind in St. Lawrence, on the Burin Peninsula.
These proposals are being held up by a soon to be released Energy Plan Assessment, that could very well determine the fate of wind farm development in the province.
The status of this report is something Ventus CEO John Douglas is anxiously awaiting. He acknowledges that the longer the wait the, smaller the window of opportunity becomes.
“The whole opportunity to move power will only be around for a short period of time. This is why I think it’s important that the energy policy be resolved, so the private sector can go ahead and develop these projects before its too late,” says Mr. Douglas
Some issues with wind farm development stem from the amount of energy that can be safely added to the electrical grid. Other issues concern wind capacity factors, which is the ratio of actual production, and the cost consumers will have to dish out for a clean energy resource.
Out west some of these concerns have led to big adjustments for grid operators based on inaccurate predictions by wind companies hoping to set up shop.
In Alberta it was predicted that the transmission grid could accommodate 3,000 MW, when actually it can only accommodate about 900 MW. But that cap will be realized only after billions of dollars are invested into grid upgrading by next year.
For a wind farm to be economically viable it is predicted that the capacity factor should be operating at a rate of 30 per cent.
That hasn’t been happening so far.
Most of this evidence was discovered in a report prepared by an Ontario-based consumer watchdog group called Energy Probe.
Last November it found capacity rates for wind farms in Canada to be well below what was initially predicted. Quebec’s first industrial wind farm in Le Nordais, projected to produce a capacity factor close to 40 per cent, only produced 18 per cent during its first five years of production.
Another example is the Windshare turbine in Toronto where the production rate was only 14.7 per cent in the first 42 months of operation.
Mr. Douglas feels most of this report is flawed based on the fact that its findings are based on wind farm statistics taken mainly during the summer months when wind energy production is low.
“Wind power produces most of its energy in the late fall for two reasons; one, it is typically more windy during the winter; two, the air is colder, so it is denser and there is more kinetic energy.”
Source or backup?
Although, the reliability of wind energy is based on the predictability of wind forecasts, which are almost never stable.
It’s because of this that any wind farm development will always need an operational reserve of energy to depend on. In places like Alberta, that reserve is coal; in Ontario, with environmental groups lobbying to close down coal plants by 2009, nuclear reserves are the only option. In Labrador, Hydro stands out as the obvious secondary choice.
This makes the use of both hydro and wind energy a powerful combination. When the wind blows you can store water, which acts as a battery. When it stops blowing you flow the water and the electricity from the reservoir will step into help.
On the island the grid can only accommodate about 70 to 80 MW. Newfoundland and Labrador Hydro plan on splitting that up between three possible wind farm projects.
Newfoundland and Labrador Hydro CEO Ed Martin understands the complexities of transferring unstable power to a transmission grid.
“You don’t want to put all your eggs into one basket, especially with wind. If you put all that 80 MW in one area and the wind stops blowing you got an issue,” says Mr. Martin.
It’s unsure yet how much wind energy can be applied to the grid in Labrador. Overpowering base loads using wind energy has met with its share of problems.
Right now, the European Union is investigating whether Germany’s heavy reliance on wind power caused a black out which affected 10 million people. This example is the reason why wind can only provide part of the solution as a dependable renewable energy resource.
The next dynamic is cost.
Ontario consumers are paying 8.6 cents a kilowatt per hour for wind. The average price for electricity is 5.
4 cents. Ontario’s clean burning coal plants make power at a cost of just 4 cents. There are also hidden subsidizes attached as well.
One of the reasons why wind energy is attractive to Newfoundland and Labrador Hydro on the island is to reduce the costs associated with fossil fuel generation at the Holyrood. But it is unclear how much money consumers are saving with thermal generation over wind energy production.
It is also not known what role government will take in developing these projects. Mr. Douglas favors letting the private sector take over the risks at no cost to the province. That maybe good for Newfoundland and Labrador Hydro, who can place their money into other ventures, but will, it put more money back into consumers pockets.
Especially if these projects don’t perform as predicted.
In the meantime Newfoundland and Labrador Hydro are conducting their own tests in Labrador to determine whether wind farm development is economically feasible.
“There is a prescribed length of time that you really need to have so you can measure whether a resource is going to be statistically sound. That’s what we’re taking the time to do,” says Mr. Martin.
Until all the appropriate data is collected consumers will have to wait and see whether this Energy Report will be as fruitful as industry intends it will be.
By Jamie Tarrant
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