Wind turbines are spinning on the hills of southern Alberta, and on a hill outside Whitehorse, in the Yukon. They are spinning in downtown Toronto, and along the shores of the St Lawrence, in Quebec. But there are no wind turbines spinning in British Columbia — yet.
The production of electricity from the wind is making rapid progress around the world. By the end of 2003, wind turbines had 39,000 megawatts (MW)of global capacity. By the end of 2004, it had risen to 47,000 MW. In Quebec, the government has just given approval for the construction of a further 2,000 MW.
In Calgary, the public light rail system is powered by twelve wind turbines located in the southern prairies, near Pincher Creek. The program is called “Ride the Wind,” and moves the Calgary C Trains while producing no greenhouse gas emissions at all. Wind generated electricity is also powering many Calgary households which purchase green electricity credits to show that their power has come from Alberta’s turbines.
Overall, in Canada, wind turbines have 570 MW of capacity. The Canadian Wind Energy Association believes that Canada could have 10,000 megawatts of wind power capacity by 2010.
But don’t wind turbines kill birds? Aren’t they ugly, and noisy? And what happens when the wind is not blowing? These are all important questions.
The first generation of turbines with latticed frames were certainly no friend of birds, especially if they were badly located. But the new turbines have smooth tubular stems, with nowhere for a bird to rest, and on average, studies show that they kill no more than one or two birds per turbine per year. If we want to protect the birds, we should look after our cats.
To some people wind turbines are ugly, but many people like their sleek designs, and see them as an emblem of the future. If you live very close, they will sometimes produce a background noise, but most of Canada’s wind farms are in remote areas where few people live.
What happens when the wind is not blowing? The answer is simple: they stop turning. Here in BC, however, we are blessed with a hydro system which can be used like a battery. When the wind is blowing, and the turbines are putting energy into the grid, the hydro engineers can hold back the water in the dams. When the wind stops, the dams can do their part.
How much power could wind turbines in BC produce? A recent study that was done for BC Hydro suggested that we have potential for 5,000 MW, enough to power almost a million homes. The best locations are in the Peace River country, on the northern end of Vancouver Island, and along BC’s mid-coast off Haida Gwaii.
How much will it cost? The cost varies according to the wind, ranging from 6 to 12 cents a kilowatt hour. The owners of a 58.5 MW project that was recently scrapped at Holberg, on northern Vancouver Island, negotiated a lowprice contract with BC Hydro before they knew how much wind there was, and had to back out when the numbers didn’t work.
Power from natural gas, for comparison, costs 9 cents a kilowatt hour, which is guaranteed to increase since North America has only enough gas left for ten more years. Coal-fired power is still cheap, but coal is the dirtiest of all fuels, and ‘clean coal’ technologies which will not produce greenhouse gas emissions are still years off. Wind energy, by contrast, is a gift from the sun (since it’s the sun’s heat that causes the wind to blow). It is renewable, clean, and goes on forever.
In Denmark, where the modern wind energy movement began, farmers, teachers, and other people have formed wind energy cooperatives, and own their own turbines. Globally, a study from Stanford University has suggested that the world could harvest five times more power from the wind than we are currently using for all purposes.
The BC Sustainable Energy Association believes that wind energy has a big future in BC, as long as policies and rules are put in place to encourage it. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait much longer!
Guy Dauncey is President of the BC Sustainable Energy Association (www.bcsea.org), and author of the book Stormy Weather: 101 Solutions to Global Climate Change. He lives in Victoria.