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Whither Windmills?  

They seem to spring up from the green fields overnight, these turreted Cyclops, escaped from some alien war of the worlds, spinning their 30-metre-long blades into the wind.

Such aerospace monoliths have no literal connections with the ancient hills and mountains of southwest Alberta; they are stranger than science fiction to pygmy horses and horsemen huddling below their wings. These are the outriders of a coming invasion. One day they may even straddle the mountaintops in our insatiable quest for more and more power from the wind.

For one who believes in green energy and energy conservation, finding myself in the position of criticizing southern Alberta’s wind energy industry is like dissing Mom’s apple pie. How did it come to this?

I live in the Municipal District of Pincher Creek, MD 9, the windiest section of Alberta. It is a region that adds more megawatts of power to the electrical grid with each passing year, all part of an international phenomenon of wind power development that is growing at the rate of about five per cent a year. Most of Alberta’s electrical power comes from fossil fuel (mainly coal) fired plants, but wind energy capacity is approaching four per cent of our total output.

Alberta’s no-brakes economy is upping the demand for power. In Calgary, I met with Karl Pinna, chief economist at the nonprofit Canadian Energy Research Institute, who says “Alberta’s economy is growing at eight per cent per year. The only place that grew faster than us in 2006 was China.” Dale Johnson of Wind Power Inc., based in Pincher Creek, told me “We need to bring on line 400 MW every year to keep up with demand.” Johnson explained that our electrical power grid, where no new transmission lines have been built for 20 years, is nearly maxed out. Just after our interview, in fact, Alberta’s electrical grid peaked at a new record of 9,701 MW (December 3, 2007) out of a total capacity of approximately 12,000 MW. Alberta’s power cushion, needed to account for emergency plant shutdowns, is said to be the smallest in Canada. “If your lights go out this winter,” warns Johnson, “you’ll know why. We need new transmission lines right now to get wind power to market.” However, the newest one, a 240-kV line to connect Pincher Creek wind farms and Lethbridge, will not be completed until late in 2009.

The Alberta wind power industry can trace its roots back to 1984, when local farmer Ernie Sinnott won a fight with TransAlta Utilities to sell surplus power from his private windmill into the Alberta electrical grid. His win put a green light in some neighbours’ eyes. They saw a chance to power their farming operations independently and make a small profit as well.

But commercial developers saw things differently, although they concentrated on the green message to make their point. The wind stays clean on both sides of a turbine, they told the press. Their mission of clean, renewable energy pleased environmental groups and think tanks then as it does now. There was a streak of almost religious green zealotry among the wind pioneers. Eventually, however, it became clear that they didn’t just want to embrace the wind; they wanted to farm it, on a massive scale.

In 1990 the Alberta Government provided three million dollars in seed money to Southwest Alberta Renewable Energy Initiative (SWAREI) to help found the wind industry here, but Tory politicians balked at the higher costs of wind power versus the fossil-fuel-powered version. Calgary oilmen, seeing wind energy as a threat to their profits, took out a two-page spread in the Calgary Herald attacking the embryo industry. Stick with fossil fuel plants – that was the message to their political clients.

In 1993, U.S. Windpower of Livermore, California, secured a power allocation previously granted to SWAREI to supply power to the grid and built a 9MW wind farm consisting of 25 wind turbines west of Pincher Creek. The wind farm was an exciting advance for green energy, yet it had ominous overtones: On top of the Cowley Ridge next to Highway 3, it upstaged one of the most scenic Rocky Mountain vistas in Alberta with whirling 16-metre-long blades mounted on 24-metre-high towers. If the intrusion had ended there, if other, much larger windmills had been sited with more sensitivity for the landscape, the ensuing controversy might have been avoided. But developers want windmills where the wind blows the strongest, hence on ridge tops where they dominate the horizon.

So far, the turbines here have all been placed on private land, but development proceeded in a hopscotch fashion with little concern for the way it degrades the sublime beauty of our landscape, or irritates the eye with constant movement – when the wind is blowing strong enough to move the blades that is – which is about 35 per cent of the time for modern turbines.

As the years went by, more and more windmills were commissioned, such as Canadian Hydro’s newer machines in MD 9, with their 45-metre-high white towers, and 3D-metre blades. Seventy-two windmills now turn on the Cowley Ridge and nearby Sinnott property, part of the 216 windmills located throughout our district alone. Windmills now dominate a good deal of the view along Highway 3 from Lundbreck to Fort Macleod and beyond, so that in some locations, the sky is cut constantly by the whirring blades of this commerce with the wind, while at night red lights blink incessantly as a warning to aircraft. An additional 245 windmills are already approved for our MD. I can’t imagine what this place will look like after they are built.

Although developers often layer green washing on this energy source, I suspect it is greenbacks that set the pace for growth today. According to theStar.com (November 29, 2007), Dawn Farrell, a TransAlta vice-president, put the issue in perspective for investors this way: “What we love about wind is that from a decision to cash is a very short period of time.” According to Dale Johnson, a 1.3MW windmill like the ones in MD 9 can generate approximately $150,000 to $200,000 a year for its operator and from $4,000 to $6,000 a year as a royalty share for the property owner. TransAlta alone paid out $450,000 to landowners in 2007. Some farmers and ranchers, hit hard by low prices for their products, see the leasing of “wind rights” as a way of earning cash to stay on the land. Wind farms also provide short-and long-term employment in the area, while for local politicians, windmills are a source of tax revenue, contributing $1,194,000 to our district coffers in 2007, according to Kevin Van Koughnett, managing director of Wind Resource Planning for TransAlta Wind. The wind power boom is on, where it will end depends on demand, and the price of natural gas generation, which is its main competitor. And, of course, what is really driving development is you – electricity consumers.

Despite their green reputation, wind mills are being tilted at by thousands of modern-day Don Quixotes for reasons other than vandalizing the view: The noise of the rotors and the fragmentation of wildlife habitat caused by access roads and power lines are often cited.

Windmills can pose a collision hazard for migratory birds, but our skyscrapers, cats, cars, and residences kill many times more. Migrating bats, however, may be at greater risk. Bats can eat their weight in insects every day. Where I live, the presence of bats means an absence of mosquitoes and other pests, so I was alarmed to learn that 500 silver and hoary bats perished in 2006 at Pincher Creek wind farms, according to a University of Calgary study.

More alarming is the argument that windmills actually contribute to CO2 pollution! Wind is erratic, so as a source of power it must be backed up by fossil fuel plants and hydro. Most Alberta power comes from coal-fired plants, which can take several days to get up to speed, so they must be kept running. The more windmills, the more coal and gas backup in reserve, since more hydro is not an option. Imbalances in the grid caused by wind power caused AESO, the Alberta Energy System Operator, to order a 900MW cap be placed on wind energy in 2005, causing great consternation in the wind power industry. On April 20, the Financial Post reported that a new 1,200MW facility built by Enmax to supply power to Calgary would help to solve the variability problems created by wind power. The AESO lifted the 900-MW cap in October 2007. Enmax told the Financial Post (April 20, 2007) that the gas-fired plant will “help boost the provincial grid’s reliability after Alberta’s aggressive expansion into wind energy made it vulnerable to power disruption.”

“We now have so much wind power generation that we need to fall back on reliable sources of power,” said Peter Hunt, an Enmax spokesperson.

Clearly, there are some technological paradoxes here that need to be resolved before we expand in the usual Alberta ready-shoot-take-aim manner. The industry is currently working on solutions, such as better wind forecasting, to help solve some of these problems.

Meanwhile a growing segment of MD 9 rate payers, alarmed by the growth of wind farms, demand that local politicians implement zoning regulations to protect the area from being overrun and turned into an industrialized landscape. In September 2007, district council proposed bylaws to create wind power exclusion zones and called for cumulative effect analyses. The council called for a public hearing October 9 to discuss the changes. It found itself under immediate verbal siege by the wind industry. The companies paid for expensive ads warning that the bylaws were discriminatory and would “drive the industry out of Pincher Creek,” Those who opposed them were accused of threatening the property rights of those who wished to host wind machines on their land.

This belligerent attitude in the local press convinced many of us that what the companies really wanted was unrestricted access to the entire municipal district – the right, in effect, to change the landscape of an entire region for personal profit. At the hearing, Ralph Klein, now a director on the board of Canadian Hydro, warned our councilors that the bylaw would “impede them [Canadian Hydro] tremendously.” Gone were the speakers passionately advocating for green energy. The theme of the night was profiting from the wind and protecting, above all, the rights of those who wished to profit.

In Alberta, it seems, we cannot even get green energy right. We have to treat a renewable resource as boom or bust, like fossil fuel. The Canadian Wind Energy Association hopes to supply 10,000MW in Canada – five percent of our national electricity – by 2010. “This is equivalent,” according to Can WEA, “to about 30 million megawatt-hours of electricity per year based on current forecasts sufficient to meet the electricity needs of nearly four million homes.” This would displace “between 15 and 25 million tonnes per year of atmospheric GHG emissions by 2010, depending on where the wind farms are located. This is the equivalent of permanently removing the GHG emissions of up to 7.5 million personal automobiles.”

But do we really need that much power? And if given it, will we simply waste even more of it? Are we going to throw conservation out the window, and let the insatiable greed for profit drive wind power the way it drives natural gas and tar sands development? “Conservation” Johnson reminds us, “is the cheapest form of energy.”

Perhaps those of us who think wind farms are ugly, who feel wind power is vandalizing the mountain scenery would come to see them as lofty, even noble additions to the landscape, translating the wind into light and music, if there were fewer of them, and if we knew they were truly necessary to light the homes and industries of our fellow citizens, citizens who had first done their best to treat this elegant form of power with the reverence and respect it deserves – by using it wisely.

Sid Marty is a poet, author, and environmental advocate who lives near the Crowsnest Pass.

Legacy Spring 2008

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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