Wind energy production facing strong headwinds in province

When the wind blows hard, golfers anticipate high scores and sailors brace for high waves.

When the wind blows hard, golfers anticipate high scores and sailors brace for high waves.

Tim Weis counts on low electricity prices.

The Alberta director for the Canadian Wind Energy Association said gusty conditions mean the province’s wind turbines are producing a surge of power for Alberta’s electrical grid that drives prices down.

“When it’s windy, the whole market comes down.”

Fossil fuel generators can vary production in response to such price fluctuations, reducing their fuel costs in the process. Wind generators have no such flexibility.

Another challenge facing the wind energy industry in Alberta’s deregulated electricity market is the uncertainty of future prices. That makes it tough to raise the capital to develop wind farms.

“It’s hard to get that 20-year loan form the banks, given the volatility we’ve seen,” said Weis.

At 1,400 megawatts (MW), wind energy accounts for about five per cent of the Alberta market, putting the province behind only Ontario and Quebec. But new development is trending in the wrong direction.

“We’re actually seeing people pull out of Alberta right now,” said Weis, noting that there was 5,690 MW of new wind energy production proposed for the province in May 2012, but only 2,350 MW as of September of this year.

“People are starting to look to other jurisdictions, whether it’s south of the border; whether it’s Ontario or Quebec.”

That’s unfortunate, he said, because Alberta is well-suited for the industry. Advancing technology has broadened the area capable of supporting wind farms from blustery Southern Alberta to a wide swath of land east of Hwy 2 that extends north of Edmonton — with Capital Power’s 150-MW, 83-turbine facility near Halkirk a testament to the viability of the renewable resource in Central Alberta

“There’s more wind than you could ever possible conceive of developing in Alberta,” said Weis, adding that the province’s geology and demographics also give it an advantage over other parts of Canada.

Expanding Alberta’s wind energy footprint would help spread out production and reduce wind-driven price drops, since weather patterns vary from region to region.

“That’s why people are looking up into the Red Deer area and further north.”

The Canadian Wind Energy Association has proposed strategies to help its Alberta producers overcome a deregulated electricity market that favours fossil fuel generation. These include a “clean electricity standard” that would place a cap on greenhouse gas emissions and encourage electricity retailers to utilize renewable energy, and an increase in the carbon levy that heavy greenhouse gas emitters in Alberta are required to pay.

The association would like to see 20 per cent of Alberta’s electricity generated from wind. That objective is not unrealistic, said Weis, considering that Iowa and South Dakota are at 27.4 per cent and 26 per cent respectively, and Denmark is up to 40 per cent.

The opportunity is there, he noted, since many of Alberta’s coal-fired generators — which currently produce 65 per cent of the province’s electricity — are scheduled to come off line over the next several decades. Meanwhile, demand for energy is expected to grow.

“So there’s a big gap that needs to be filled.”

Natural gas will play a big role, acknowledged Weis. But wind energy could complement that source of electricity.

“I think there’s probably more synergies than competition there.”

He pointed out that wind energy is second only to natural gas when it comes cost-competitiveness.

“There was a study that came out of the United States just about two months ago from Lazard (Ltd.), which is a big financial advisory firm. They’re saying that wind energy is probably the most cost-effective source of new technology in the Untied States.”

Health Canada has rejected claims that wind turbines create health problems for people living nearby, and concerns about bird fatalities have been overstated, said Weis. He cited Environment Canada statistics that indicate 16,700 birds are killed by wind turbines each year, as compared with 196 million by cats, 25.6 million by transmission lines, 22.4 million by house windows, and 13.8 million by vehicles.

Weis said he’s encouraged that the Alberta Electric System Operator (AESO) is considering ways to better integrate wind energy into its system, and the provincial government is working on an Alternative and Renewable Energy Strategy.

hrichards@bprda.wpengine.com

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