A 'green' energy choice pushing for widespread acceptance
Last Updated March 7, 2007
The land around Murdochville, Que., was once prized for its copper, a resource that allowed its population to swell to almost 5,000 during the mining heydays in the 1970s. But after the Noranda mine closed in 1999 and the foundry soon after, the tiny Quebec town in the middle of the Gaspé Peninsula had to look elsewhere for a resource capable of supporting what remained of the population of 800.
A flock of ducks flies in front of a wind turbine in a field near Port Bruce, Ont., on the Lake Erie north shore, on Feb. 8. (Canadian Press/Dave Chidley)
They found at least a partial answer in a source of energy known to whip across town from the Gulf of St. Lawrence: wind.
"It was hard living for the town before and the population was agitated," said Redouane Megateli, the scientific director of Centre CORUS, a facility in Murdochville dedicated to the study of wind energy.
"The town had lost its economic structure. But developers came here and brought jobs for a year when they set up wind turbines," he said. "What that did was give the town time to restructure the community. It brought hope."
That hope is being felt across the country in various forms. There's an energy boom afoot in Canada, but the source of the power isn't tied to a rich vein of uranium or a new oil source bubbling from the ground. It is in similar wind turbine projects happening across the country.
The Canadian Wind Energy Association said 20 new wind farms with a capacity of 776 MW of power were built in 2006, more than doubling the country's total wind capacity from the previous year and raising the country's total wind capacity to 1492 MW. By comparison, the output of New Brunswick's Point Lepreau nuclear power plant has a net capacity of 635 MW.
There is also more to come: from West Cape in Prince Edward Island to the southern slope of Mount Hays just south of Prince Rupert, B.C., 12 more projects are expected to be built before the end of this year.
Ontario, Alberta and Quebec are leading the growing movement of provincial governments to add wind to their energy mix in an effort to meet environmental targets to cut greenhouse gas emissions from the burning of fossil fuels.
Following the lead of European nations, provinces have set ambitious targets for the amount of wind-generated power they want to produce. Quebec, for example, says it wants to produce 4,000 megawatts of wind-generated power by 2015 — or almost three times the 1,492 MW total capacity in Canada and enough energy to power 1.2 million homes.
It's led to a construction boom for wind turbine farms but also raised questions in small towns across the country about the sudden appearance of row upon row of wind turbines on their primarily flat, rural landscapes. While wind power is often lauded for its small environmental footprint and "clean" energy, there continues to be skepticism about just how much it can alter the energy landscape in this country, and whether the role it plays is destined to be a small one.
Wind may provide a solution
The worldwide impetus to move towards "greener" energies like wind, solar and tidal power has risen as concern over global warming and rising energy prices continues to grow. The United Nations led Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report released in February linking climate change to man-made emissions of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide was just the latest in a series of studies pointing to the impact of fossil fuel burning on global warming.
The report said global warming was "unequivocal" and that man-made greenhouse gases were "very likely" the cause.
Environmental concerns have combined with the more immediate anxiety over rising oil prices to light a fire under governments to find and implement alternative energy sources.
University of Calgary ecology student Erin Baerwald holds a hoary bat she found injured in a field near Pincher Creek, Alta., wind turbines. (CBC)
"We think there needs to be a rethink of the utility industry in Canada, and wind is moving rapidly to provide a solution," said Robert Hornung, president of the Canadian Wind Energy Association.
Wind power transforms the kinetic energy of the wind hitting the blades of a turbine into electrical energy that can be harnessed, much like the older technology of windmills used the force of nature to power mechanical tasks like pumping water. To make the energy production economical, most wind turbines are grouped together to form wind power plants, or wind "farms."
To be a practical source of energy, wind farms must be placed in locations that not only get a steady stream of wind but also get this stream from a consistent direction and not from areas of high turbulence. These conditions can be found in a number of geographic locations, from flatlands in the Canadian prairies to mountainsides to areas close to bodies of water.
At current levels, wind power is far from a panacea for Canada's energy concerns, remaining a small source of potential power in this country, with the 1,492 MW capacity of all the wind farms accounting for only 0.5 per cent of Canada's total energy consumption.
And even that statistic is misleading, for there remains a significant gap between a wind farm's capacity and the actual energy it produces, or what industry people call the capacity factor. Simply put, a wind turbine farm with a capacity of one megawatt would need to be running 24 hours a day and seven days a week to produce an average of one megawatt per hour.
But wind is variable: it rarely blows at the same speed, and sometimes it doesn't blow at all. Hornung said wind turbines are moving with the wind anywhere from 75 to 80 per cent of the time, with the speed the blades turn varying with the wind. Turbines don't just shut off when the wind isn't blowing, either. Typically turbines turn on only when winds reach 13 km/h and turn off when they top 90 km/h.
As a result, the capacity factor of the average wind farm in Canada is about 32 per cent of its listed capacity, said Megateli, with the two wind farms in Murdochville reaching a nationwide high of 40 per cent.
The disparity is just one hot-button issue critics have seized upon when dismissing the technology. But Hornung said equating the variability of wind to any lack of reliability is misleading.
"We in the energy issue deal with variability every day," he said. "The power used at 7 p.m. versus the power used at 3 a.m. is more variable than any change in wind power. Over the course of a whole year, wind power is actually less susceptible to seasonal variations than hydroelectric power."
Hornung said variability between seasons hasn't prevented hydroelectric power from making up a larger source of energy in Canada. A 2003 study by the International Journal on Hydropower and Dams pegged Canada's hydro capacity at 67,100 MW.
Skeptics are out there
Hornung sees hydro and wind as good partners for the future, in part because wind is generally stronger in winter when hydropower ebbs. Should wind power expand to levels like world leader Denmark — which gets 20 per cent of its power from wind farms — the best fit would not be with nuclear power, which doesn't have the luxury of power up and down in response to wind shortfalls.
A wind farm in Fort Macleod, Alta. (Canadian Press)
Perhaps coincidentally, much of the resistance to wind power can be found in Ontario, a province that relies on nuclear power as its top energy source.
An Enbridge project near Saugeen Shores on the Lake Huron coast that was supposed to be completed last year has pushed back its deadline in response to community concerns, just one of a handful of projects that have faced resistance in the province from people skeptical of the benefits of wind energy.
Bill Anderson of Amherstburg, Ont., is one such skeptic. He says plans to build wind farms in Essex County in southwestern Ontario are being pushed through without addressing a number of citizen concerns, including the distances the turbines are from people's homes and the potential impact of the farms on migratory birds.
"This is a beautiful little corner of Ontario and an important bird area because of nearby marshlands," said Anderson, who with his wife Maureen went before the town's council last week to protest Toronto-based GenGrowth's plan to build five wind turbines in Amherstburg.
"We are trying to bring awareness to people that these wind farms aren't all they are said to be," he told CBC News Online. "And we've got to do it now, before these turbines are put in, because once they are put in they're there for good."
While Anderson is concerned about the impact of the whirling blades of wind turbines on bird populations, research conducted by wildlife groups have found the threat is far less significant than other potential dangers, such as predators and collisions with windows. Less clear is how habitat avoidance and displacement caused by the turbines effects mortality rate.
Wind turbines should not be considered in areas of high habitat quality or importance, particularly if the area is used by threatened species, said Leigh Edgar, a spokeswoman for the Canadian Wildlife Federation.
A more tangible threat is to bats. University of Calgary researchers are examining possible causes after more than 500 dead bats were found in each of the last two years near the turbines at the Summerview Wind Farm in Pincher Creek, Alta. Similar incidents have been recorded in other locations, but as Hornung points out, most turbines have no impact on the flying mammals.
"It's a mysterious thing and one we're looking into," he said. "We know very little about the migratory routes of bats, but it's something we're committed to resolving."
Hornung recognizes much of the resistance to turbines is coming from Ontario and suggests a lack of accurate information is at the root of many local complaints. The only issue he says he can't debate is one of aesthetics.
"If someone says, 'I don't like the look of turbines in my neighbourhood,' there's not much I can say to that," he said. "It's a challenge."
But of greater concern for residents like Anderson is the thorny issue of setbacks: the distance the turbines must be from adjacent property lines. It's an issue each municipality negotiates separately, and has led to delays for certain projects. Some municipalities have pushed for setbacks of 200 to 300 metres, or roughly three times the distance of typical wind towers.
Issues with property owners may explain in part why research in the industry continues to move to the more remote regions of the country.
While Canada has no offshore wind farms, offshore wind energy is becoming a growing part of the European wind boom. And Megateli continues to work in Murdochville on the impact of polar climates on the turbines, hoping his research can help build a better energy source in the frozen North.
"Our experience with wind is recent," he said. "We have a huge potential to produce it in Canada, but we need more of an understanding of the parameters that can effect it to truly harness that power."
- Gas prices
- Canada's uranium boom
- Consumer tips
- Fuel cells
- Marine power
- Tidal power
- Solar power
- Wind Resistance
Previous pages on Energy
(Note: CBC does not endorse and is not responsible for the content of external sites - links will open in new window)