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The Politics of Wind

Wind power is in vogue, but is B.C. failing to set sail?

Kathleen Haley 2 Jun
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Who could possibly tilt at windmills? In the federal election, almost every party had a billion-dollar wind-power plank in their platform. In B.C., wind advocates are touting its potential, and the first wind farm feeding the power grid in B.C. could be up and running by October 2005.Yet BC Hydro isn't particularly impressed. Some observers even insist that, although B.C. lags far behind Europe and even Alberta in the environmentally friendly technology, wind power is still too costly to play a significant role in the province's immediate future.Those who defend wind as an option say the critics aren't noting the plummeting costs for producing wind energy - and the fact that wind neatly complements our province's abundant hydroelectric power."The rest of North America is surging ahead with wind and we're lagging way behind," said Ron Percival, chair of the wind committee for the Independent Power Producers Association of British Columbia and president of Earth First Energy Inc.Canada currently has only 341 megawatts of installed wind capacity, according to Robert Hornung, president of the Ottawa-based Canadian Wind Energy Association. B.C. has none.A 2002 wind energy study of B.C. says sites around Port Hardy and Port Alice on northern Vancouver Island and near Prince Rupert on the north coast have more than 1,200 megawatts of potential that could be operating by 2011. Those 1,200 megawatts of wind energy would produce 2,800 gigawatt-hours of power annually - the average annual consumption of more than 100,000 homes, the study says.The report, commissioned by Greenpeace and the Living Oceans Society, also said investing $1 billion to develop B.C.'s wind industry could create 8,000 years' worth of new employment. A turbine assembly plant and related infrastructure could bring the total to nearly 50,000 "job-years."Greenpeace is updating the report, said David Fields, energy campaigner for Greenpeace Canada, and hopes to provide more comprehensive information on wind potential throughout B.C. in order pressure the provincial government to look harder at wind power and also generate private sector interest in investment.However, Mark Jaccard, an ecological economist at Simon Fraser University, says wind conditions in the province are uneven and the technology's cost needs to fall to make it truly viable. He believes B.C. should pursue other alternative power sources such as small hydro projects; "cogeneration," which taps into waste heat from industrial activity; and biomass energy, which can be derived from plant and animal waste. According to BC Hydro, wood residue from sawmills is a major biomass source in B.C. that has significant potential to produce electricity.Canada's blown opportunity?Nevertheless, one B.C. wind energy facility is on the horizon. The first commercial wind power plant to supply the provincial power grid may be operational by 2005, when B.C.'s Stothert Power Corp. and the Danish-American Global Renewable Energy Partners Inc. complete their 58.5-megawatt joint project near Holberg on northern Vancouver Island.Despite the skepticism in some quarters about B.C.'s potential, advocates see a huge upside for wind power nationally. Canada now serves about 0.16 per cent of its electricity needs through wind energy, said CanWEA's Hornung, far behind many European countries and even the United States. The industry group says it's possible for Canada to supply 20 per cent of its energy needs through wind.Wind power is the fastest growing energy source in the world, CanWEA says, increasing by more than 30 per cent annually during the last five years. Germany leads the world, with capacity of 14,609 megawatts as of December 2003, according to the American Wind Energy Association. Denmark produces 20 per cent of its electricity from wind, according to a 2004 David Suzuki Foundation report. Even the U.S. has a capacity of 6,374 megawatts, according to AWEA.Fields says the environmental impacts of wind projects are very small - mainly greenhouse gases emitted by equipment used to help construct the power plants - although he notes that migratory patterns of birds should be considered in choosing sites.But Jaccard says B.C. geography isn't generally conducive to efficient wind power. "The wind in British Columbia is not as good, in most locations, as it is in flat land like the [Canadian] Prairies, or the coast of Denmark, or Inner Mongolia," he said. "But there may be some very good locations in British Columbia. I am only talking in a general sense."All of the province's energy needs could be supplied with wind, or even other renewable energy sources, he says. The question is simply one of cost.Buying megawatts by the hourBC Hydro estimated the costs of several energy sources in its 2004 Integrated Electricity Plan. "The major barrier to wind development in B.C. is the higher cost of wind energy relative to other clean resources such as small hydro," it states.The estimates are based on what the unbuilt power sources would cost to develop in B.C. in 2004, said Ron Monk, project manager for BC Hydro's IEP.Hydro estimates that wind energy costs range from $61 to $141 per megawatt-hour - cheaper than geothermal, wave, tidal or solar. But biomass and small hydro can be cheaper. Biomass energy costs about $56 to $190. Small hydro runs about $30 to $100 per megawatt-hour. Hydro's IEP estimates coal costs at roughly $52 to $63 per megawatt-hour, and new large-scale hydroelectric costs about $54 to $110 per megawatt-hour.Percival argues that Hydro's estimates are based on generalities. Every project has its own cost issues, he said. Proximity to roads and the energy grid, as well as clearing that may be required to maximize a site's potential, are among the factors that influence cost.Monk says the Stothert Power wind project, which was proposed during Hydro's 2002-'03 call for green power, will cost at or below $55 per megawatt hour, the ceiling price in that call for proposals.According to CanWEA's Hornung, wind energy in Canada costs from $65 to $120 per megawatt hour. But he said costs are expected to decline as taller turbines and longer blades make wind turbines more efficient. Hornung notes that costs have already fallen dramatically - from about $300 per megawatt-hour two decades ago.B.C. Hydro's burning issuesHydro's electricity plan, which includes the option of more power from natural gas and coal, acknowledges wind's importance as a clean energy source but gives wind a zero rating for dependability because windmills don't generate energy constantly. Wind power needs to be backed up by other sources of energy, said B.C. Hydro spokeswoman Elisha Moreno.The wind power industry acknowledges that generation is intermittent, but Percival argues that the stored water in hydroelectric facilities can generate energy when the wind fails to blow. He believes Hydro's deal for a single facility is a drop in the bucket when B.C.'s wind potentialis considered.Moreno maintains there hasn't been a lot of wind power offered by developers.

Sea Breeze Power Corp. registered with B.C. Hydro to bid on wind power projects during a call for new energy sources on Vancouver Island last fall, but Hydro dropped the company from the process, says Moreno, because the company didn't meet some technical and financial criteria for the bid. "Hydro and ourselves had a difference of opinion on the definition of capacity and how that related to wind," Sea Breeze Power Corp. chief executive Tony Duggleby told The Tyee.B.C. Hydro has done some work to guage wind potential. It monitored wind conditions at several British Columbia locations in recent years and concluded sites at Vancouver Island's Rumble Ridge and Bear Mountain and Wartenbe near Dawson Creek showed the best potential for commercial wind farms.And Hydro's IEP acknowledged that wind speed monitoring by private developers "has been reported to have identified world-class wind energy sites in select but more remote locations on the B.C. coast and in certain Interior regions."Waiting for the big oneOther companies hoping to develop wind energy projects in B.C. include Earth First Energy Inc. and Uniterre Resources Ltd. Earth First believes wind projects can be developed for $55 per megawatt hour in the Peace River region, Percival said.Vancouver-based Uniterre's subsidiary, Nai Kun Wind Development Inc., and Germany's ABB New Ventures, have proposed a huge 700-megawatt offshore wind energy project in the Hecate Strait between Haida Gwaii and Prince Rupert. The $1.5 billion proposal, first made in 2002, would be located 10 to 15 kilometers off the eastern shore of Haida Gwaii. The project would be one of the largest wind power plants in the world, according to Uniterre President Michael Altman, who hopes to attract funding from institutional investors.We must want wind to have itAll these wind-energy projects, however, depend on willing investors, open-minded buyers and encouragement from governments.The wind committee for the Independent Power Producers Association of British Columbia isn't arguing for more government incentives for wind power projects, according to Percival, but he says the committee does want BC Hydro to consider wind when it buys power.However, the Canadian Wind Energy Association is calling on the federal government to increase its Wind Power Production Incentive program's target to 4,000 megawatts of installed wind energy capacity, up from the current 1,000 target. CanWEA wants Canada to reach 10,000 megawatts of installed wind power capacity by 2010.The WPPI program currently offers eligible participants an incentive of about $10 for every megawatt-hour of wind generated. B.C. provides a provincial sales tax exemption on equipment for wind energy generation.Alberta depends mostly on coal and natural gas for its energy, but the province also leads the nation with 172 megawatts of installed wind energy capacity. And the Alberta government is aiming to use wind and biomass energy to supply more than 90 per cent of the electricity for government buildings, starting in 2005, according to Val Mellesmoen, a spokeswoman for Alberta Environment.Despite the frustrations of some B.C. wind advocates, the national political weather is blowing in the direction of clean energy. The Liberals have a comprehensive plan to generate five per cent of Canada's electricity through wind power. The NDP wants to install 10,000 windmills in Canada to generate 10,000 megawatts of energy, at a cost party officials estimate at $10 billion. The Greens are also shooting for 10,000 megawatts by 2010, at a cost of $1.5 billion. The Bloc Québécois says it would increase federal incentives from the current $260 million over 15 years to $2.1 billion over 10 years.Only time will tell whether B.C. will position itself to capitalize on the likely increase in federal incentives, or allow windmills to remain largely creatures of our provincial imagination.Kathleen Haley is on staff at The Tyee.  [Tyee]

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