Small, "clean" power projects across the country have divided communities and raised a clamour of protests from what might seem an unlikely group — environmentalists.

Such wind, microhydro and bioenergy projects are gradually feeding into an electrical grid once dominated by power megaprojects with environmental footprints to match. And yet many of these green projects face fierce opposition.

Run-of-river projects became a controversial issue in the 2009 B.C. election after environmentalists raised concerns. Environmental groups have also opposed biomass energy, including plans in Prince George, B.C., and in Nova Scotia. In Ontario, a court challenge and an appeal to an environmental tribunal are under way concerning wind developments.

The dirty side of clean power

Biomass or bioenergy

  • Concerns have been raised about whether biomass is sustainable and whether it may lead to clearcutting of more forests.
  • Local residents are often concerned about pollution generated by burning biomass

Run-of-river

  • Environmentalists say they worry about the cumulative effect of hundreds of small hydro projects, especially on salmon runs.

Wind

  • Opponents say wind turbines kill birds and bats.
  • Some nearby residents complain about the noise, air pressure and light patterns generated by turbines, which they say can lead to health problems.

"A lot of proponents of renewable energy … thought they were the good guys coming in on the white horse to solve the carbon problem or the sustainability problem. They thought they'd be welcomed with open arms," says John Robinson, executive director of the University of British Columbia Sustainability Initiative. "A bunch of them have been very surprised by this opposition."

Traditional power stations, such Alberta and Ontario's coal-fired thermal plants, and even hydro megaprojects like Hydro-Quebec's James Bay development, have major environmental impacts that range from air pollution to wetland damage and erosion. But many are hundreds of kilometres from major population centres, so they are out of sight and out of mind for many Canadians.

Anouk Kendall, president of WADE Canada, a group that represents small, decentralized energy producers, says the public is just not used to being near power plants. But she adds that the existing grid can no longer meet our needs, and more distributed power generation with small plants close to populated areas is the way of the future.

'We don't have a choice'

"We don’t have a choice right now because the infrastructure is so old and inefficient," Kendall says, pointing to aging power plants and transmission lines  that would cost a fortune to replace.

The infrastructure problem is one reason UBC is building a biomass gasification plant on its main Vancouver campus, Robinson says.

The $27-million plant being built in partnership with Vancouver-based Nexterra Systems Corp. is scheduled to be up and running by 2012.  It is expected to generate enough electricity to power 1,500 homes and enough heat to reduce the university's natural gas consumption by up to 12 per cent.

Notably, it will also postpone the need for a new $50 million transmission line through Vancouver's Point Grey neighbourhood to UBC, Robinson adds.

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In the traditional energy paradigm, vast amounts of electricity are sent through transmission lines, like this 735 kilovolt line in Quebec, from large generating sites to major load centres. Renewable projects, on the other hand, tend to be smaller and more geographically spread out, requiring a new, 'smarter' grid. ((Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press))

"You can just imagine the politics of trying to build, through the most expensive real estate in the city, a new transmission line."

Nevertheless, renewable energy proponents can no longer ignore the fact that they, too, can face opposition when they try to develop more sustainable sources of electricity in populated areas.

"Managing public reaction and listening to it and adapting are crucial," Robinson says.

He thinks utilities are starting to do a better job of engaging communities and that regulatory tribunals have helped provide a forum to resolve complaints.

Kendall, meanwhile, believes many of the health and environmental impacts people are concerned about will soon be addressed by improvements that reduce noise or pollution from renewable energy generation. "I think these sorts of things kind of work themselves out …. Where the concern is real, the technology will adapt."

Local advantages

While there may be downsides to living or working near a generating station, local power also comes with a lot of benefits, Robinson notes. For one thing, it allows both the power and the excess heat generated from a source like the proposed biogas plant to be put to use.

Canadian power plant database

Wondering about power plants near you? Search CBC's Canadian power plant database to find out details about existing or planned generating stations across Canada. Search by plant type, owner or location.

It also minimizes the typical loss of power due to electrical resistance as it travels through up to thousands of kilometres of transmission lines. For example, Hydro-Quebec estimates that power lost between its James Bay hydro generator and Montreal — a distance of more than 1,000 kilometres — varies from 4.5 per cent to 8 per cent, depending on the outdoor temperature and other conditions. That works out to hundreds of megawatts lost, in itself the equivalent the output of a small power station.

Transmission lines are also expensive. To minimizes losses over long distances, Hydro-Quebec uses some extremely high voltage lines — 735 kilovolts — that cost $1.5 million to $3 million per kilometre to build. Even a lower-voltage 120 kilovolt line costs $700,000 to $1 million per kilometre. And those lines have to be constantly maintained.

Power from large distant power projects feeds into a transmission network that transfer it to a distribution network, which in turn carries the power to customers. Small, green energy projects, on the other hand, feed straight into the lower voltage distribution grid that connects to people's homes.

With the UBC project, Robinson estimates, the distance travelled by the power "is zero, effectively," so it's extremely efficient.

Changing a one-way system

But local opposition isn't the only thing standing in the way of smaller, localized power stations. There are also some technical hurdles.

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A child plays golf under hydro lines leading from the Pickering Nuclear Plant in Pickering, Ont. Many Canadians are not used to living near generating plants. ((Kevin Frayer/Canadian Press))

One of the major barriers to the use of renewable power in the past has been the fact that the distribution systems were not set up to accept power from anywhere except a limited number of big generators in the main transmission system, says John Hamilton, manager of grid operations on the distribution side of Hydro One, the electricity transmission and distribution company in Ontario.

"Changing the system from a one-way system is a big challenge."

But it's one of many provinces that have committed to changing how power is created and delivered. Ontario wants 18 per cent of its power to come from renewable sources by 2018. Nova Scotia has set a similar target of 15 per cent by 2015. B.C. wants all new electricity projects to have zero net greenhouse gas emissions.

Hamilton says Hydro One is currently working on an information network that will allow it to monitor and control the distribution system, turning the system into a "smart grid." Robinson says the smart grid is an essential for a system that relies on many small power sources whose output may vary with factors like wind speed, or whether the sun is shining on solar installations. Better grid management technology will allow problems to be isolated and power to be re-routed quickly around them, taking advantage of the resilience that systems based on a few large power plants can never have.

Kendall says the next step is to build in power storage that can be drawn on to restore outages immediately. We're not there yet, she says, but she thinks everything is headed in the right direction.

"I've never seen the momentum that we've got right now," she says. "It's all coming together."