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Wind power boosters blowing smoke

Another day, another report from an alternative energy-public policy group slamming the $1.47-billion carbon capture and storage (CCS) project at SaskPower’s Boundary Dam power station at Estevan. This time, the study comes from Saskatchewan Community Wind, which is proposing a 10-turbine wind project near Saskatoon or another community with a suitable wind regime and $50 million of capital to invest.

The study’s author is Saskatchewan Community Wind founder and president James Glennie, who has 24 years’ experience in the energy industry, the last 14 years in the wind energy sector, and lots of credentials, including an MBA, and master’s and bachelor’s of science degrees.

Glennie’s project was initially called Saskatoon Community Wind, but failed to gain traction with either SaskPower, the provincial government or the City of Saskatoon. So after a couple of years, Glennie renamed the project Saskatchewan Community Wind, assembled a new team and aimed at the provincial market.

But Glennie claims that SaskPower’s grid usage fees are twice as high for wind as they are for coal, and consequently blocked Saskatchewan Community Wind from getting access to the provincial grid. More importantly, he charges that SaskPower could have achieved the same energy generation and carbon reductions through wind power for $1 billion less than the Boundary Dam CCS project’s $1.47-billion price tag.

“This report indicates that SaskPower customers will be left carrying a loss of more than $1 billion on a $1.5-billion investment, the primary beneficiary of which would appear to be an Alberta-based oil company,’ the report said, referring to Cenovus Energy of Calgary, which is buying 2,300 tonnes a day of CO2 from SaskPower for use at its enhanced oil recovery (EOR) project near Weyburn.

Glennie’s conclusions are similar to those reached by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives last month, which said the CCS project was “risky, expensive’ and environmentally inconsequential, reducing the corporation’s total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by only seven per cent and the province’s emissions by only two per cent.

With all due respect, the authors of both these reports are missing the point of the CCS project, which is the first commercial-scale, post-combustion CCS project at a coal-fired generation station in the world.

Yes, we all agree the project is expensive. But remember that SaskPower’s costs were reduced by $240 million from the federal government, making its actual cost closer to $1.23 billion. Moreover, the cost of any subsequent CCS plant is likely to be lower – by 30 per cent, according to one Sask-Power official.

And the GHG reductions from this CCS plant are 90 per cent, or one million tonnes per year – equivalent to taking 250,000 vehicles off the road.

Of course, none of this matters if one believes that we must leave 80 per cent of the world’s known coal resources, not to mention half the gas and onethird of the oil, in the ground. The concept of divesting ourselves of fossil fuels is gaining momentum, being supported by everyone from billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates to Archbishop Desmond Tutu to the heads of the World Bank and the Bank of England. The “divestment movement’ takes as an article of faith that most of the world’s fossil fuel resources must remain “unburned,” or the planet is doomed.

But is it realistic to assume the world, which currently relies on coal for more than 40 per cent of its electricity generation, can easily turn to natural gas or renewables for its baseload power? With huge developing countries, like China and India, still dependent on coalfired generation, what is the responsible alternative?

I submit that CCS or clean coal is one solution. It may not be a silver bullet, but it does provide us some “breathing room,’ while we reduce our dependence on fossil fuels.

Wind energy is also a solution; so are solar, biomass and other renewables.

SaskPower is at 25 per cent renewable energy today and hopes to generate 10 per cent of its capacity from wind by 2020. But SaskPower needs baseload power, like coal and natural gas-fired generation, to keep the lights on.

By definition, intermittent energy sources, like wind, can’t provide baseload power, and it proponents are deluding themselves and the public if they think it can.