After 19 months of commercial wind power operating experience in Ontario, there is some good news. Our wind farms produce almost up to target levels. The companies delivering wind power are mostly established energy firms. All are installing state of the art technology. Wind-farm operators in Ontario are subject to stricter technical controls than in Germany where, last November, wind power contributed to a continental grid blackout.
For all its strengths, we now have enough information to conclude that wind power in Ontario is a disaster for consumers.
Ontario’s large wind farms completing one year of service generated on average 29% of what they could have under ideal conditions. The world’s best perform 50% better.
Moreover, the little output our wind turbines do generate comes in wild swings from high production to dead calm. Compared to all available generation technologies, wind power is uniquely intermittent. Over one-hour intervals, production changes for individual wind farms are as great as 73%, and 39% for the overall fleet. Over five-minute intervals, changes of 13% for individual farms have been measured.
Intermittency creates a major challenge for grid reliability, which requires instantaneous balancing of overall power generation to exactly match consumption. Combining nuclear generators, which have almost no ability to increase or decrease output, with intermittent wind power is particularly problematic. Balancing nuclear and wind power while keeping the lights on requires other, typically costly, generators to quickly ramp up, down or stand by. With one of the most nuclear-dependent grids in the world, Ontario is poorly suited to host wind power.
Predicting wind output changes has proven difficult, but one pattern is clear:Winds tend to be calm when consumers need electricity most. Ontarians use the most electricity in summer – the weakest season for wind. In July and August of 2006 and 2007, Ontario was frequently becalmed and average monthly output fell within the lowly 13% to 19% range. Although winter is the strongest season, on the coldest days, when we use most power, wind output tends to be poorest. Over the typical day, wind output peaks around midnight and bottoms out around 8 a.m., contrary to our daily consumption pattern.
Diversifying the geographic location of wind farms has provided little output stability because, even when widely dispersed, output from individual farms tends to rise and fall in sync. Although limited data is available, the production pattern of New York’s largest wind farm appears to closely match the hourly output of Ontario’s overall wind production. New York’s farm even matches fairly closely the output of a similar farm at Sault St. Marie, 840 kilometres away.
Connecting wind power to the grid is also costly. The first of many high-voltage transmission investments mainly directed at wind is currently pegged at $635-million. Connecting large wind generators to low-voltage distribution networks will require costly re-engineering. Whether high voltage or low, grid connections must be vastly oversized relative to average wind output to support infrequent bursts of full production.
The McGuinty government is currently buying wind power for 11¢ per kilowatt hour – about double the current price homeowners pay for reliable, available-on-demand power. A little competition would mitigate this. Before the wind industry convinced the McGuinty government to adopt sole-sourcing for wind power as it was done for nuclear and some gas generators, competitive auctions in 2004 to supply wind power revealed a price of 8¢ per kilowatt hour and 8.6¢ in 2005.
Modern smog-free coal generators, like those operating now in Alberta, the United States, Europe and Japan, are the reliable, secure and affordable alternative. If real market competition existed, only a heavy carbon tax would prevent coal from blowing wind power away.
Wind power’s lack of overall value has not prevented our politicians from embracing it. Mr. McGuinty’s group has decreed that, by the end of 2010, wind capacity will triple and then almost triple again by 2025. By 2027, the government says wind will supply 12% of the province’s power generation. McGuinty’s rivals all complain that this is just not enough.
But getting 12% of our power from a costly, unreliable and so far unpredictable source is trouble consumers don’t need. If we bet heavily on wind, will the rest of our power system keep the lights on during the summer doldrums?
Possible solutions to overcome wind power’s deficiencies range from conceivable to sci-fi: finding much windier places near the existing grid, developing cheap short-term storage options to buffer wind output, centralized instantaneous controls for consumer power usage, perhaps tethering airborne wind turbines to capture high-altitude winds, or even tapping artificial and controlled tornadoes.
Without radical technological advances, wind power will only burden Ontario consumers.
By Tom Adams And Francois Cadieux
Tom Adams is an independent energy advisor and Francois Cadieux is an engineering science student at the University of Toronto.
20 November 2007
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