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Wind industry upbeat despite blustery foes  

Canada’s wind power industry is predicting a resurgence in 2008, after finishing a disappointing year of turbine installations in 2007.

But the factors that slowed the completion of projects in 2007 – vocal opposition that delayed municipal approvals, concerns over the reliability and cost of wind power, and questions about environmental impacts – are still likely to dog the industry in 2008.

A year ago, Canada’s wind industry projected a banner 2007. With about 750 megawatts of wind power having come on stream in 2006 – doubling overall capacity – another 1,000 MW was supposed to be added in 2007.

But it didn’t happen. In the past year, only about 400 MW of wind power was added to the Canadian grid, far less than even the most modest predictions.

“400 megawatts is short of where we had hoped to be at the start of the year,” said Robert Hornung, president of the Canadian Wind Energy Association (CanWEA). “The key factor: There has been delays in permitting … particularly in Ontario.”

Still, he added, most of those approval hurdles have now been overcome, and CanWEA expects about 900 MW of new wind power will be up and running in 2008.

What’s more, 2,500 MW worth of new projects are under contract to be built in the coming years, and utilities in Quebec, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Manitoba are expected to grant additional contracts in 2008.

By 2015, Canada is expected to have about 14,000 MW of wind power in place, putting us among the world’s top half-dozen wind players, according to Emerging Energy Research of Cambridge, Mass. The United States will have about 57,000 MW by then, while Europe will have 125,000 MW, the research group projects.

This year’s delays “haven’t dampened enthusiasm within the industry or interest in seeing wind develop in Canada,” Mr. Hornung said.

While he acknowledges that some individuals in some communities are prepared to fight wind projects, many developments face “virtually no opposition at all,” he said.

Still, for an industry that widely touts its green credentials as an emission-free generator of power, its vocal opponents will not go away.

One central argument from the anti-wind forces is that the intermittent nature of wind power makes it far less environmentally friendly than it appears at first blush.

They say wind power often has to be backed up by fossil fuel-based generators – which can kick in quickly when the wind dies. In fact, they argue, the need for extra flexibility to back up wind power means it results in more greenhouse gas emissions than there would have been without it.

“In order to stabilize the grid, you’ve got to have something to back it up at any moment,” and that usually means building more fossil fuel-based generators, said Keith Stelling, who prepared a report on the European experience for the group, Friends of Arran Lake, which is fighting against wind farms near the town of Southampton, Ont., on Lake Huron.

By adding more wind power, “you’re probably contributing more CO{-2} than you’re eliminating,” Mr. Stelling said.

Some opponents – particularly those living near wind farms – also say turbines are killing inordinate numbers of birds and bats, and that noise and visual disruption make them anything but environmentally friendly.

In rural settings, the divide is often between landowners who will be collecting royalties from turbines located on their properties, and others who live nearby but will get no economic benefit.

Not surprisingly, wind developers dismiss most of the concerns. They say their projects don’t proceed until careful studies of bird migration patterns are complete. And they point out they are providing crucial economic benefits to rural areas that have few other sources of funds.

Developers also point to groundbreaking work in Alberta that may help accurately predict wind resources – one key answer to dealing with the variability problem.

The Alberta Electric System Operator has hired three wind forecasting organizations for a year-long trial to see just how accurately wind resources can be predicted.

The more accurate the forecast, the easier it is to arrange for back-up when the wind dies.

Independent energy adviser Tom Adams, a long-time critic of the wind industry, has high praise for Alberta’s efforts to improve forecasting.

But he says the industry has much more to do if it is to become a credible green alternative, including acknowledging that the power output from wind turbines is often far less than initial projections.

Over all, wind developers have to be more realistic about their claims, and their problems, Mr. Adams said.

“What frustrates me is that wind power, until recently, has received the level of scrutiny that Popular Mechanics applied to nuclear energy through the 1950s, when [the magazine said] we’d all be driving nuclear cars.”

At the moment, wind power is still “a very expensive way to generate quite unreliable electricity,” he said, adding that the industry’s short-term prospects are entirely dependent on political decisions that determine what subsidies it will receive.

To become truly viable over the long-term, far more attention will have to be paid to putting wind farms offshore in lakes or the ocean, where many of the land-based problems are eliminated, Mr. Adams said.

*****

THE CHALLENGE OF WIND FORECASTING

A key problem in integrating large amounts of wind power into a utility’s mix is that the breeze doesn’t always blow when it’s needed.

But if wind speeds can be predicted in advance, it is much easier to arrange for back-up power to kick in when the air goes still.

The Alberta Electric System Operator, which wants to boost the proportion of wind power in the province, is conducting tests to judge the accuracy of the work of three international wind forecasting firms.

One is from the United States, another is from Germany, and the third is from Denmark.

Data from the tests, which AESO posts on its website weekly, show that predicting Alberta’s wind speeds is, so far, still just about as hit and miss as other kinds of weather forecasting.

During the week of Dec. 2, for instance, all three forecasters predicted the wind would pick up sharply, while the weather actually stayed very calm.

Two weeks later, all three managed to much more accurately predict the ramping up and down of wind speeds.

It’s the quick increases or decreases that appear to be the most challenging to predict accurately, said Warren Frost, AESO’s vice-president for operations and reliability. “Sometimes they are bang on, and other times there’s a time delay,” he said. “Some other events have not been caught at all.” Still, it’s early days, he added.

While accurate forecasting will certainly help blend wind into the power mix in Alberta, Mr. Frost acknowledged that there will continue to be a need for flexible back-up power sources, at least until new technology is developed to store electricity.

“Certainly conventional generation like coal, gas-fired, and hydro [will be needed to] provide the ramping capabilities.”

By Richard Blackwell

The Globe and Mail

27 December 2007

This article is the work of the source indicated. Any opinions expressed in it are not necessarily those of National Wind Watch.

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