The answer, as the song goes, is blowing in the wind.
Yet few jurisdictions are asking the question about the potential of giant windmills to generate electricity at industrial levels.
The major problems were the cost was prohibitive to build the structures required, the amounts of electricity were smaller than other kinds of generators and if there wasn’t at least a stiff breeze, there was no electricity being created.
Successful wind projects in California, Hawaii, and elsewhere have helped bring down the development cost, however, allowing the potential of wind energy to blow into more and more sites around the world.
There are currently four operational wind farms in B.C., three of them in the Peace region and one on Vancouver Island, supplying about 488.7 megawatts of power – about two per cent of B.C.’s overall electricity consumption – to the provincial grid . All four are only a few years old and there are many more wind farm proposals are on the horizon.
There are 20 licensed exploration missions happening in the Central Interior right now. The most visible local proposal Mount George, located in the same range of peaks as Tabor Mountain, but other exploratory work has happened at sites to the north, south, and the one most recently in the news is to the west.
That project, Nulki Hills, took a large step forward just before Christmas with a partnership announced between the company attempting to build the mountaintop facility, Innergex, and the First Nation affected, the Saik’uz.
“We look forward to continuing our positive relationship with Innergex,” said Saik’uz First Nations Chief Stanley Thomas. “We trust that Innergex will work within our traditional territory in a manner respectful of the environment, our culture and our constitutional aboriginal rights, titles and interest.”
Richard Blanchet, senior vice-president of Innergex’s western region, said, “The Nulki Hills prospective wind project, representing up to 210 megawatts of clean, renewable power is currently undergoing a BC Environmental Assessment. The partners will work together to obtain an Environmental Assessment Certificate from the province and an electricity purchase agreement from BC Hydro for this project, which could deliver power to the grid by late 2018.”
In a joint statement, the power company and the First Nation agreed to a framework of operational consultation, a spirit of cooperation on industrial activities, and to a traditional knowledge protocol.
But while the Nulki Hills wind energy project took a recent advancement, two others were discontinued.
In March of 2012, Ontario-based Northland Power Inc. had applied to the provincial government for investigative licenses to assess the viability of wind farms for a 4,144-hectare site near Cobb Lake, 40 km west of Prince George, and a 3,658-hectare site near Marie Lake, 22 km southwest of Fort St. James).
A spokesperson for Northland Power said that the company had withdrawn all paperwork for further activities in the region and were no longer doing research in the area.
Northland Power is a veteran energy company, already operating 10 thermal and wind power facilities in Ontario, Quebec, Saskatchewan, the United States and Germany.
A European-based group, Fred. Olsen Ltd., which is heavily invested in Scandinavia and the United Kingdom, was the proponent of the Mount George project. The company hired local geoscience firm EDI Environmental Dynamics to do extensive field research and input that into their applications to government. However, said Fred. Olsen Ltd. marketing spokesperson Alex Woodward, the company sold the project to Northland Power.
“Everything is withdrawn except Mount George,” clarified Michael Margolick, senior developer with Northland Power. There are two towers already atop the peak to the east, each one outfitted with multiple anemometers – wind-speed sensors – constantly measuring the air flow at different elevations.
“We think it is a very promising site, it has a history, in other words others have had some confidence in it as well,” said Margolick. “There was preliminary work done by Fred.Olsen and it looked promising, but now we have to look into a more serious investigation.”
Margolick was unable to disclose when enough data would be in Northland Power’s hands to convince them to either proceed with a full-scale application to BC Hydro or to halt exploration.
They and Innergex are not the only companies trying to calculate the costs and benefits of Prince George wind. Sea Breeze Power Corp. of Vancouver confirmed their Prince George-area exploration projects are still in play.
“However these projects are very early stage for us and we haven’t progressed much in our investigations,” said James Griffiths, their manager of wind development. “Furthermore, given the recent signals from the B.C. government regarding a weak outlook for renewable energy in B.C. in the near term, we may require stronger market signals before we can justify ramping up our investigation on these sites. We are moving forward more aggressively with other investigative wind projects in the Okanagan region and on the coast, for example.”
In November, BC Hydro announced a limited interest in buying more electricity made by independent power producers in the next five years, which is the single greatest reason wind energy investment has gone suddenly soft.
“That is true,” said Margolick, “But we are actually optimistic that will change in the future. We take the long view, and we believe it is something worthwhile to do this preliminary work, so when circumstances change, we will be ready.”
Premier Christy Clark made no commitments to wind energy during her visit to Prince George last week to host her Premier’s Natural Resources Forum.
“We have an oversupply of power in B.C., really,” she explained. “What we need is industrial growth and then we will have a huge demand for power, and I’m glad those guys are thinking ahead.”
That assessment is mindful of the Site C Dam providing the kind of sustainable electricity the short-term power consumption projections will require, but if all or even some of the proposed mines and natural gas projects come to fruition, the equation changes.
“Finding the power has been a really big preoccupation of [resource industry ministers] Bill Bennett and Rich Coleman,” said Clark. “We have to find energy that is as inexpensive as possible and at a time when we don’t really need that big input of energy yet, so we don’t end up overpaying for it.”
Also a factor, said Clark, is the smaller demand from American consumers to buy B.C.’s electricity during times of oversupply in the local market.
Margolick said the wind industry, led by private companies with their own money on the line, had to make difficult calculations as well, to decide what to invest in or even if they should invest at all in British Columbia.
“You need a power purchase agreement at a viable price. You need your environmental assessments done. You have to have your consultations in with the public and the First Nations that might be involved. Then you have to do more wind studies to set up where your turbines are going to go. You have to have a vendor [of the equipment and its installation] and a construction plan. All these things and more besides have to be in place for that one big day, the financial close, when a bank or investor puts their commitment on the dotted line. It is a lengthy and detailed process,” he said.
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