Canada's new power strategy excludes megaprojects

The future of Canada's power grid is a lot smaller scale than it used to be, but one Calgary firm is hoping to become a big player in the space.

BluEarth carves out a niche in renewables

In the next 10 years, much of the new generation coming online will be in the form of small renewable projects, like this wind turbine located on the CNE grounds in Toronto. (J.P. Moczulski/Reuters)

The words "power plant" tend to evoke images of imposing structures jutting out of the landscape — huge dams, nuclear reactors or coal plants that leave a large footprint on the environment they draw from. That image is about to change, according to trends identified in a CBC News special report.

Megawatts explained

The currency of energy production is the megawatt (MW), and power plants are typically measured in megawatt-hours (MWh). One megawatt of power is equivalent to 1,000 kilowatts. A generator producing one MW of power, if left to run at full capacity for an entire year (8,765 hours) would produce 8,765 MWh of energy. To put some context to that, a typical Canadian family home uses roughly seven MWh per year, so under ideal circumstance, that 1 MW plant could power 1,200 homes.

The word "megaproject" has been used to describe many of Canada's older power installations, from the dams in Quebec and B.C., to reactors in Ontario and New Brunswick. They're enormous plants made to generate enormous amounts of electricity.

"There's only one Niagara Falls," as University of Toronto environmental economics professor Alan Dewees puts it.

The federal Conservatives are pledging support for the $6.2-billion development of the Lower Churchill project in Labrador if they are re-elected, but this large-scale approach to new power generating stations is a dying breed. The vast majority power plants of Canada's near future  are likely to be far less ostentatious than Lower Churchill, or developments like the gigantic facility on the Niagara river that Ontario uses to meet a significant chunk of the province’s energy needs.

Across Canada, much of the capacity scheduled to come online in the next 10 years will come from renewable energy projects, which tend to be relatively small by design. (See the interactive map of plants across the country or use the power plant database to search for plants by location, type or operator.)

That’s partly because they’re more scaleable, both to build and manage. It's simply not economically feasible to adjust the output of a 5,000-megawatt nuclear power station as power demands warrant, for example. But a 100 megawatt wind farm or a 20 megawatt solar facility can quickly and easily come online or shut down depending on the need, and the availability of the renewable resource  it uses. And a collection of small plants can generate as much power as a single megaplant.

Going green

Renewable energy isn't a new concept. The country’s power network is already heavily dependent on hydroelectricity, drawing on Canada’s vast water resources. A CBC News analysis calculated that 74,391 MW of the more than 127,000 MW the country currently generates annually comes from hydro.

The 219 MW Harmon Generating Station near Kapuskasing, Ont. Hydro and wind plants can work in tandem, dams can be closed to store water, and energy, during periods of high wind speed. ((OPG))

But as Canada runs out of sources of hydroelectricity to develop, attention is turning to other forms of renewable energy to meet the country's growing need for electricity.

"And wind is the ideal complement to hydroelectricity because you can tone it [hydro power] down when wind is available," Canadian Wind Energy Association president Robert Hornung says. "When wind is up, you close the dam and essentially let energy to build up in it."

The renewable resource projects, like wind, solar, and biomass, that will power Canada tomorrow are evenly spread across the country. And their scalability, versatility and small size are part of what’s sparked a rush of investment in the sector as new players get into the energy business.

Far from looking like the next Hoover Dam, the kinds of projects coming online in the coming decade are likely to be more akin to the Fitzsimmons energy project at Whistler/Blackcomb ski resort, which takes advantage of the site’s natural vertical drop to turn river water into enough energy to power the entire resort — and then some.

Or the Drake Landing solar community in Okotoks, south of Calgary, which uses the site’s natural preponderance of sunlight to meet the heating needs of more than 50 households, year-round.

Or maybe the ExPlace turbine that dominates Toronto’s lake shore, harnessing the power of wind coming in from the lake and turning it into enough energy to power 200 households for a year.

Individually, none of those projects are anywhere close to the same scale as the monolithic entities people normally associate with power plants. But taken collectively, their small outputs add up to be a significant portion of Canada’s electricity generating capacity moving forward.

At 9 p.m. on Oct. 28th, 2010, for example, wind energy use hit an all time high of 1,056 megawatts in Ontario. Throughout the whole day, wind made up five per cent of the province’s total energy use. The wind energy association says wind output has increased tenfold in Canada since 2003, so that ratio’s going nowhere but up.


BluEarth Renewables Inc. is one of the startups aiming to capitalize on the burgeoning renewable energy sector.

10 biggest power plants in Canada (by 2010 capacity):

1. Bruce nuclear generating station, Tiverton, Ont., 6,250 MW

2. Robert Bourassa hydroelectric station, Radisson, Que., 5,616 MW

3. Churchill Falls hydroelectric station, Churchill Falls, N.L., 5,428 MW

4. Nanticoke coal generating station, Nanticoke, Ont., 3,640 MW

5. Darlington nuclear generating station, Clarington, Ont., 3,512 MW

6. Pickering nuclear generating station, Pickering, Ont., 3,100 MW

7. La Grande-4 hydroelectric station, Keyano, Que., 2,779 MW

8. Gordon M. Shrum hydroelectric station, Hudson’s Hope, B.C., 2,730 MW

9. La Grande-3 hydroelectric station, Kayami, Que., 2,417 MW

10. Sundance coal generating station, Wabamun, Alta., 2,126 MW

"Having a basket of options is the way to go, because we need more energy production," says Kent Brown, BluEarth president and CEO. "But ultimately we won’t have a choice about de-carboning our world."

Brown would know. He used to head up Canadian Hydro Developers Inc., which was the largest renewable energy company in Canada until TransAlta Corp. acquired it in a $1.6 billion hostile takeover in 2009.

Conventional power generator TransAlta was looking to complement its oil and gas plants with Canadian Hydro Developers’ suite of renewable facilities. Now, with 13 wind farms, 28 hydro plants, a biomass operation and one geothermal heating plant, TransAlta is a major player in the renewable space.

Even after the sale of Canadian Hydro Developers, Brown recognized the vast potential of the renewable space. He and fellow co-founders John and Ross Keating set up BluEarth to try to catch that same lightning in a bottle.

"To me, renewables are the bridge to whatever’s next," he says. "And the combination of that, plus natural gas, is the most logical transition."

BluEarth has no operating plants just yet, but with $162 million in financing in place from heavy-hitting private equity titans such as the Ontario Teachers Pension Plan and Calgary-based ARC Financial Corp., the company is currently scouring the country for assets that are ready to come online.

"Best-case scenario is we have some sort of generating capacity by the end of 2011," Brown says.

The company forecasts rapid growth; Brown expects to have between 350 and 400 megawatts in place within four or five years. An ambitious target for most, "but we think it’s achieveable," he says.

Turbines from TransAlta's 70 MW Summerview wind farms located in Pincher Creek, Alta. The company owns 13 wind farms, 28 hydro plants, one biomass plant and a geothermal heating facility. ((TransAlta))

"When I started [at Canadian Hydro Developers] in 2001 we had 89 megawatts of generation and when I left we were up to 700," he notes.

The financial crisis cut off funding for a lot of viable projects, Brown says. So BluEarth is hoping to leverage its expertise in the renewable space — not to mention that $162 million in available funding — to get stakes in smaller projects across the country that are close to flipping their power switches on.

Most will be small — 20 MW and above for wind projects, 10 MW run of river hydro projects or solar farms with at least 5 MW of output. The company is looking exclusively at Canadian sites because in Brown’s view, that’s where the best opportunities for them lie.

As Brown puts it: "They may be small, but there’s huge potential."