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Cap on wind power lifting

There’s an end in sight to the cap that put the kibosh on further development of wind power in the province that once led all the rest in developing wind farms.

With billions of dollars of wind power projects stalled by a year-long cap on further development, it looked like Albertans could be getting their electricity from nuclear reactors before the province jumped on the green bandwagon sweeping the rest of North America.

But the Alberta Electric System Operator (AESO) will “soon” remove the cap, says Ally Sutherland, AESO communications advisor.

Wind power is the fastest growing energy source in the world. Alberta has almost 300 megawatts of installed wind energy capacity, more than any other province in Canada, according to the Pembina Institute.

But in May, 2006, Alberta became the only province to cap wind power when AESO imposed a limit of 900 megawatts on wind, a level less than one third of what Quebec has set out to install.

The cap, which many in the industry have denounced as arbitrary, was imposed because AESO fears the province’s transmission grid cannot handle the growth going on in wind power.

The cap put $6 billion in Alberta wind power proposals in limbo, an electricity conference was told last fall. When – or if – the cap might be lifted has been unknown, a situation that has caused critics to accuse Alberta of opting out of the green revolution.

Other jurisdictions have plunged into wind energy without enough preparation and have then had to backtrack, says Sutherland. Alberta opted to take a “cautious prudent approach” and, having done its homework, will be proceeding with the confidence of knowing what it is doing.

Studies indicate that wind power does affect the reliability of electricity supply, says Sutherland. Rather than being arbitrary, AESO’s 900 megawatt cap is a “decent safe level” that ensures the grid won’t be rendered unstable by wind energy fluctuations, she says.

While the cap was in place, AESO launched an Alberta wind forecasting study involving four international suppliers and beefed up electrical grids in southern Alberta to make possible their absorption of 1,400 megawatts of wind power. With those and other moves, AESO is just about ready to lift its 900 megawatt cap.

A spokesperson for the Calgary-based wind resource measurement firm Phoenix Engineering Inc., which has been involved in the design of 40 per cent of the wind power projects in Canada, says there are “a lot of projects being developed despite the cap”. But some companies, such as West WindEau which has plans for a $400 million wind farm near Medicine Hat, says the cap “has stalled the business of wind in Alberta”. And some companies are going farther afield. Calgary-based TransCanada Corp. recently announced plans to build a $300 million (U.S.) wind farm in the mountains of Maine.

Despite having lots of wind and soaring demand for power, Alberta has been slow in upgrading the transmission lines required to pump wind energy from southern Alberta to areas of demand.

The Consumers Coalition of Alberta recently forecast that Albertans could soon be paying some of the highest electricity bills in the country because of the rising demand for electricity, the cost of building new transmission lines and new climate change laws.

By Suzanne Zwarun

Journal of Commerce

23 June 2007