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Lights out on PEI’s wind power dream

There’s a nice bakery near where I live that recently started boasting it had switched to wind energy to power its ovens. A sign informed customers that the owner recognized an energy-intensive business such as baking generated a large carbon footprint, so he wanted everyone to know he was “taking proactive steps” to reduce his production of greenhouse gasses.

“How,” I asked him, “do you know you are getting only wind energy through the power lines that enter your store? How do only the good electrons know to come into your store and the bad ones pass by?”

Unless you have a windmill on top of your building or out behind your barn, with a direct line from the turbine to the switchbox in your store or home, the answer is there is no way of knowing the source of the electricity you are consuming. Your power meter cannot discern green power from bad, nasty polluting power (which, of course, isn’t anywhere near as polluting as it once was, unless you buy into the climate-change hysteria and have convinced yourself carbon dioxide is a pollutant).

You can choose to pay more for wind power, but so long as you receive your power from “the grid” – the vast network of generating stations and transmission lines that crisscross every province – the idea that you can pay more and receive greener electricity is merely a symbolic, feel-good act. The premium you pay may or may not prompt the production of more “clean” energy. (Go to www.bullfrogpower.com for a video about how they, like other green producers, hope if enough consumers agree to pay a dollar a day more for power, they will be able to erect enough new wind turbines to eventually, some day, maybe reduce the number of coal-fired generating plants.)

It’s no surprise to me, then, that Prince Edward Island’s dream of becoming the world’s wind power megacentre – sheiks with propellers, as it were – should now be crumbling around the provincial government’s ears. Without massive government subsidies, the economics for cheap wind energy don’t exist, and a province of under 150,000 people cannot keep subsidizing expensive energy dreams forever.

It is just possible, if a private investor cannot be found to expand PEI’s existing windfarms, that the province’s energy plan will become another Come By Chance, the heavily subsidized Newfoundland oil refinery that was to make that province rich, but which ended up operating for only three years in the 1970s before going bust.

The problem with wind power, as with most alternatives to carbon fuels, is that it is impractical on a large scale. Oh, sure, supporters of wind energy can cite locations where turbines and breezes are powering 1,000, 10,000, 50,000 homes. But the landscape from sea-to-sea would have to be blighted by forests of 80-metre tall skyscraper windmills to come close to meeting the residential energy needs of Canadians, to say nothing of our nation’s industrial requirements.

Ditto with hydrogen and solar and fusion. For instance, it still takes more power to release the energy in hydrogen than the amount of energy hydrogen ultimately releases.

Sure, electric cars are just about feasible for wealthy buyers, but emissions saved by driving hybrids and all-electrics are merely shifted, they are not prevented. The emissions not generated by drivers are generated instead by the power plants producing the electricity needed to recharge electric cars.

The only power source comparable in efficiency to coal and oil is nuclear, but the self-same greens who would shutter every existing power plant, disable every car and close every factory to prevent climate change would also be the first to the picket line to thwart more nuclear power in Canada.

Alternate-energy advocates, like my baker, believe there is a magical solution to fossil fuel dependence. Like the government of PEI, they have convinced themselves that the only obstacles between our energy present and a green-energy future are lack of public subsidies and industry conspiracy. If only we can force enough public investment, the technological barriers to alternative energy sources will come down, because the only thing keeping them hidden now is Big Oil.

But there is no conspiracy and no magic wand well-meaning governments (and bakers) can wave over our energy system to transform it anytime soon.

There will come a day when someone devises an economical alternative or alternatives to coal and oil. But that day will not come just because eco-friendly politicians and activists wish it so.