Members of Chatham-Kent council who have expressed some hesitation about the proliferation of wind turbines within the municipality are right to be worried.
According to the municipality’s planning consultant, Chatham-Kent could receive proposals to build as many as “650 to 700 additional turbines,” although just 200 to 250 turbines in Chatham-Kent AND nearby Essex County can be supported right now by the electricity grid.
Yet a land rush mentality appears to be sweeping through those companies that are considering turbine development, and several are expressing great interest in erecting these massive windmills here.
I have no problem with Ontario’s wind industry, nor do I think these wind turbines are without their charms. But like the ethanol boom that exists in the U.S., I wonder if government policy in Ontario is creating an industry that can’t be supported by the forces of the free market.
In the U.S., federal and state governments have relentlessly promoted corn-to-fuel ethanol production, to the point where approximately 300 of the plants have been built.
But the investment on the newer plants isn’t being returned as quickly as it was to those plants built at the start of the boom, and it’s been reported that U.S. banks are not lending money to ethanol plant start-ups.
The rationale for ethanol has always been its politically acceptance as a “green” fuel, and that its made-in-America production would ostensibly keep reduce U.S. dependence on foreign fuel.
But ethanol is neither of these things. Studies have since shown that its production from corn involves the expenditure of a lot of energy. Sugar cane is said to be twice as efficient, and switchgrass is also more efficient than corn.
As well, most of the foreign oil imported to the U.S. comes from Alberta.
Ethanol is highly subsidized in the U.S., and there are tariffs in place to give domestic ethanol a cost advantage over Brazilian ethanol, much of which comes from sugar cane.
The point is that the ethanol industry is a creature of government, and that if left unprotected from the forces of a free market, it probably wouldn’t survive. Does ethanol have some environmental benefit? Yes.
But would people buy ethanol-blended gasoline if it wasn’t government-mandated, and if the cost wasn’t subsidized? Probably not, and especially if it was more expensive.
That might be the same case for wind-generated electricity. Ontario’s industry is part of government policy and there are incentives in place.
Those companies that are building turbines in Chatham-Kent have long-term agreements with electricity companies, and will make money under current conditions.
But wind energy won’t solve all of our energy challenges. Interest in their development was only launched by the McGuinty government four years ago, after the Liberals had won the election and had promised to close Ontario’s coal-fired plants by 2007. It was a decision made entirely because of political idealism.
It was a rash promise, but part of the public’s imagination was piqued by the idea of harnessing the wind. Yet most Ontarians probably don’t care how their electricity is generated, so long as it’s cheap and abundant.
There is some promise in wind energy but, like ethanol, it’s not the complete answer. We could pave Ontario with wind turbines, and their collective energy production wouldn’t be enough.
Should there ever come a day when the province loses its political interest in the wind industry, the industry will have to stand alone.
For the sake of Chatham-Kent and the wind turbines that have been approved for development here, I would hope the wind industry would do better than the ethanol industry is doing in the U.S.
Perhaps both will eventually do very well. But right now they are supported by government policy, and government policies change.
23 April 2008
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