You’ve got to feel bad for Dwight Duncan the Ontario Minister of Energy. Here he is he trying to keep the lights on in the province of Ontario and all of a sudden the constituents in his home region of Essex County are turning off on him over wind energy. Everyone is aware, of course, that Ontario faces a precarious energy situation. Electrical generation capacity is falling short of the province’s needs – we’re just one really hot summer from serious blackouts according to those in the know – and so a scramble has ensued to get new electrical generation online.
To that end, the Ontario government set up the Ontario Power Authority to oversee the implementation of new electrical generation capacity in the province. One of the first acts of the new organization (which by many accounts was rapidly created and staffed) was to promote the construction of wind-generated power through a promise to pay 11 cents/kMh for electricity supplied to the grid that came from a wind turbine (that’s a premium on a typical wholesale rate of 8 cents/kWh).
At the time the subsidy sounded like a great idea. WhatÃ‚Â¹s better than electricity generated from the wind? It’s renewable, there are no CO2 emissions and the wind turbines themselves can even become a bit of a tourist attraction, as is the case in Port Burwell where locals suggest they’ve seen new visitors to the area now that a wind farm has been installed near their town.
But is the story on wind really so breezy? Not even close, says Dave Lee, a retired engineer living in Kingsville, Ontario (a town 45 minutes outside of Windsor). Dave’s father had a long career at Ontario Hydro and Lee himself has a PhD in electrical engineering, so he’s no neophyte when it comes to talk about energy. Normally a reserved fellow, Lee has felt the need to step out publicly and fight against the 18 wind-farm proposals that have touched down in Essex since the standing offer by OPA to offer 11 cents/kWh went into effect. Lee began taking an interest in the issue when he heard of a proposal that would see over 100 wind turbines dropped into Lake Erie near Point Pelee National Park, a globally recognized migratory flyway for all kinds of birds and butterflies.
He put his existing knowledge together with a little research and has now come to the same conclusion as Dr. David Suzuki: Wind farms have a place in Ontario’s energy mix, but it’s a small role, and the turbines need to be placed where the pollution from wind farms isn’t a threat to humans and animals. One key point that needs to be understood, says Lee, is that the practicality of wind power is generally overstated in the public conscious. Wind power, of course, is only available when the wind blows, which means that when the wind isn’t blowing you’d have to switch back to fossil fuel generated electricity anyway to keep the lights on – and that means wind power can’t be built out to replace our fossil fuel base load.
In fact, countries in Europe that have installed wind power as base load find they end up buying power on the spot market when the wind isn’t blowing and then selling their wind power at a loss when the wind is blowing (but air conditioners aren’t being used as intensely). Denmark is often considered a leader in wind energy but according to Lee it ends up selling 84% of its power at a loss. “European countries that have put in a lot of wind power end up subsidizing their neighbors,” says Lee. “Wind power has not yet enabled the closure of a single fossil-fueled generating station anywhere in the world.”
The German energy agency recently suggested that increasing the amount of wind energy in that country would increase the cost of electricity to consumers almost fourfold and that a reduction in greenhouse gases could be achieved more cheaply by installing filters and condensers on existing fossil-fuel plants. According to Lee, it’s often been suggested that the theoretical maximum for the amount of base load that can be derived from wind power is 15%, but even that seems to be a stretch. A more likely percentage seems to be 3% or 5%, says Lee.
But beyond unreliable supply is the problem of pollution. Don’t be fooled: While the idea of wind-generated electricity is as pastoral as can be, wind farms, designed to generate industrial amounts of electricity, are themselves industrial installations. And like any other form of electrical generation on an industrial scale they give off pollution. In the case of wind farms it’s in the form of noise or vibration. In Ontario wind turbines have been placed within 300 metres of homes (which would be against the law in many other jurisdictions) and some of those people who have allowed wind turbines that close are now complaining about the noise (which developers told them would be non-existent).
As well, concerns have been raised about the emission of low frequency vibrations from wind turbines. The diameter of the circle formed by the arms of the average industrial-sized turbine is longer than a jetliner. European studies have found the steady pulses emitted by the beating blades can be felt up to a kilometre away and cause headaches, depression and anxiety in humans. Hunters in the U.S. claim that prey migrates away from wind turbines and some farmers have suggested turbines disrupt their livestock. “Farmers have seen their property values affected,” says Lee. “And we’re building these things much closer to homes in Ontario than they allow in Europe.” No wonder the list of countries that have stopped building land-based and near-shore farms (or that have begun shutting down existing farms) includes Norway, Denmark, Germany, Spain, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Japan, Australia, Ireland, Scotland and Wales.
And no wonder Lee has become an anti-wind activist these days. He is a presence at many of the meetings held by developers to explain their projects to locals. Lee is offended that some of the developers are using young kids to make these presentations. “They’ve done this in other jurisdictions. I think they think it makes them less threatening.” But he is most critical of the way the Ontario government has handled the file right from the beginning. Ontario’s Bill 51 streamlined the process for wind farms by making the environmental approval process less onerous. That fact, coupled with the subsidy on offer, has created a gold rush of sorts in Essex County, says Lee; there are now reports that used European turbines are flooding into the province as opportunities overseas are shut down.
Alberta recently surprised wind farms developers in that province when the Alberta Electric System Operator, which overseas and operates the electrical market and distribution system, slapped a cap of 900 MW of wind-generated capacity on the province’s system and put a potential $6 billion in investment on hold. According to Lee, the number of turbines that could be supported by the Ontario network – 500 to 1,250 – is quite close to the cap imposed by Alberta, but is far less than the number going up in Ontario.
“I wish wind power worked,” says Lee. “In theory it’s a good idea. But this is too much for an area the size of Essex County. If all of these go through we’ll have more wind turbines in one county than Alberta does in the whole province.” As of this writing the proposals in Essex County continue to go forward and the impression among locals is growing that they’re paying the price for a government desperate to get any sort of electrical generation up and operating in a province headed toward an energy crunch.
It’s no secret the McGuinty government made a huge deal about its promise to shut down coal generation in Ontario. It’s also no secret that many large companies such as Brookfield Asset Management (formerly Brascan) have moved into energy generation (including wind) in a big way. It also appears that the OPA was set up in a scramble and was desperate to find solutions to the electrical generation problem.
Have subsidies, market pressures, inattention and desperation resulted in an unsustainable boom in a technology that is not been fully understood by the government? Has Essex County been sold up the river in a bid to help the provincial Liberals who are desperate to keep their promise on power?
“How can you not get that impression?” asks Lee. Indeed.
Canadian Business Online, February 5, 2007
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