People like to be part of the solution, not part of the problem, says Red Deer home builder Gord Bontje, president and owner of Laebon Homes. That’s why Laebon will soon have a wind turbine spinning outside their offices west of the city.
It takes a long time for a 10-kilowatt wind turbine to cover the $50,000 cost of setting it up, especially since the wind doesn’t blow all the time. So it takes a certain kind of optimism to put that much money down on being part of the solution.
But for Bontje and Laebon workers, the economics are not the point.
The point is that at peak demand, Alberta has a razor-thin generating capacity of about seven per cent. That means if peak demand goes up just seven per cent, we won’t have the ability to produce the power we want — and that’s assuming every generator is at full capacity, and the grid can carry electricity from the producers to consumers all over Alberta. Alberta’s power generators are seldom all working at peak capacity and our grid does not have the carrying capacity to efficiently move power long distances.
That’s the problem. The problem within the problem is that power production in Alberta creates a lot of greenhouse gases.
The vast majority of Alberta’s power comes from burning fossil fuels: coal or natural gas. About 10 per cent of our total power capacity comes from cleaner hydro power, which makes it useful mostly for handling peak demand periods.
Alberta has been a net importer of power since 2002. That’s about the time the electrical system in Alberta was deregulated.
Most of the power we import comes from B.C., which has a lot of spare hydro capacity. So when Alberta is at peak demand, we import a lot of clean B.C. hydro power — which costs them less than one cent per Kw/h to produce — at peak prices, which can go as high as $1 Kw/h. Good deal for B.C. taxpayers, not so hot for Alberta power consumers.
Since Alberta’s capacity to add new hydro is limited (there is one interesting project in the works on the Peace River near Dunvegan), and people are reluctant to add a whole lot more coal-burning capacity into the mix, many are looking hopefully at wind power.
Which is where Bontje rubs shoulders — at least metaphorically — with the large Alberta companies and international conglomerates that have built the 500 Mw of installed wind power capacity in Alberta.
Worldwide, interest in wind as a clean energy source is big business. The Pembina Institute reports that last year, major investors, including governments, put $120 billion into wind power projects.
The major players do get the headlines but there’s something to be said for the little guys.
Alberta’s highly-regarded wind farms in the southwest of the province are already a tourist attraction. They produce a lot of power and displace tens of thousands of tonnes of greenhouse gas production every year.
But all told, it’s still barely a 10th of the wind power produced in Germany. Now, Germany is no Pincher Creek, as far as winds are concerned, but you don’t have travel very far to find a wind tower in that country. The countryside is speckled with them, mostly farmer-owned small producers, gleaning what they can from the winds that do exist, under a government-mandated support program that makes the economics worthwhile.
If anyone in Germany is grumbling about higher power bills, at least the profits are being spent locally.
If wind power is to be part of our clean energy solution, that’s what it will probably look like.
And Laebon Homes will be regarded as having been first in line.
Greg Neiman is an Advocate editor.