As an energy source, wind sucks almost as hard as it blows.
The limits of wind power were confirmed last week when SaskPower customers consumed a record amount of electricity, eclipsing a record set just a week earlier. Previous records were set in 2011, 2009, 2008, 2004. … Our demand for electricity just keeps going up.
Most of these records are fuelled by electricity from the corporation’s coal-and gas-fired power plants. Had we been relying on windmills last week, say, we’d have frozen in the dark.
You might have noticed that the frightful cold of recent days often was unaccompanied by even a breath of wind. I draw your attention to the photo of the Queen Elizabeth Power Station in Saskatoon, shot last Thursday morning when the temperature neared -37 C. Notice the billowing chimney smoke. It’s going straight up. If the wind isn’t blowing hard enough to move chimney smoke, it’s not going to spin a giant wind turbine.
SaskPower has two modest wind farms in the somewhat windier south of the province capable of contributing about 160 megawatts to the provincial grid.
That’s a little less than five per cent of the corporation’s generating capacity. On days when the air is still, however, as it often is on the coldest winter days, wind contributes nothing to the grid.
Wind turbines also are shut down when winds are too high, usually about 70 km/h. We can’t rely on them. Not that it’s relevant in Saskatchewan, but that’s why steamships took over from sailing ships.
It was right around the time of record electrical demand that SaskPower president Robert Watson visited The StarPhoenix newsroom. He told us that SaskPower plans to increase its wind generation, but only incrementally. Wind will not in our lifetime contribute more than about eight per cent to the corporation’s generating capacity, he says. He is much more enthusiastic over the development of carbon-capture technology at the corporation’s coal-fired plants.
Watson is well aware of wind power’s environmental appeal, but also of its limits. He doesn’t want to have to tell us when it’s -33 with no wind that we won’t be getting any electricity today. Security of our electrical supply is his first priority. And not just his. It is due to the unreliability of wind power that Saskatchewan’s connections to the larger North American grid require that wind energy be backed up by so-called spinning reserve.
This refers to reserve generating capacity that is spooled up and ready to come online in an instant when wind turbines are becalmed or feathered due to excessive winds. You would have made your breakfast with that reserve last week.
In other words, if we built wind turbines instead of new coal-or gas-fired plants, we’d have to build the new coal-or gas-fired plant anyway, and keep it running all the time as a reserve for the unreliable wind power.
To go beyond eight per cent wind just doesn’t make sense.
Connection to the larger North American grid also can help make up for deficiencies in wind power.
“We do quite well selling (electricity) to Alberta when they have no wind,” said Watson.
What about solar energy, then? Solar energy certainly is more reliable than the wind. Unfortunately, we can absolutely rely on solar to not be there for us at night, in the winter, when we most need electricity. In December and January in Saskatchewan, it is dark for 16 hours a day.
In those few hours of daylight we do get, the sun remains at a low angle over the horizon and capable of generating only a fraction as much energy as in summer months.
To heat residential swimming pools in July and August, solar is worthy of serious consideration.
To run your car’s block heater in February, it is quite useless.
Watson says SaskPower, to meet projected demand, will have to increase its generating capacity by about one-third during the next 40 years. Most of that increase will come from gas and coal. No one is projecting steady winter winds.
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