Plugging In to Clean Power

There's plenty of juice available from the winds and tides, if we choose to use it.

by Liza Morris

Electricity. Energy. Power. The stuff without which our modern, convenient, western lifestyle would come crashing to a halt.

Canada's largest wind farm will be able to supply 16,000 households in Quebec.

Why was the spectre of Y2K so scary? Most of us did not fear the loss of data, so much as the loss of electricity to heat our homes, cook our food, and pump our water. In the western world, electricity has become a basic need, along with shelter, food, and clothing. Without it almost nothing in our electron-driven world would function, and unfortunately, the electricity most of us tap into is still generated at a high cost to the environment, whether through dammed rivers, nuclear energy, or the burning of coal, oil, and diesel.

It is strange and mysterious that with so many efficient and environmentally safe forms of energy available, we, as energy consumers, continue to accept the limited choices offered us by the power companies.

This summer I took a trip through the southwestern United States, and in the space of 24 hours saw two radical extremes in energy generation. In the sun-drenched desert of northern Arizona, a monstrous coal-burning energy plant loomed on the horizon. Less than a day later, in southern California, I saw rows of delicate windmills on the rolling landscape. Both serve the same function, but were worlds apart in terms of general aesthetics and environmental impact.
Energy use need not cause environmental degradation. For most geographic areas of the planet, there are safer energy generation alternatives available, and in recent years there has been a gradual shift toward using non-polluting energy to supply all our power needs. According to many experts, the wind, the sun, and the oceans could provide more than enough energy to power the world.

Harness the wind

In recent years worldwide use of wind energy has increased dramatically, and it's predicted that 10% of the earth's electricity could be derived from wind energy by 2020. Denmark, a leader in the wind energy industry, began its program in the early 1970s and now employs more people in the wind energy field than in the entire Danish fishing fleet.

The Canadian Wind Energy Association says Canada has far more wind energy potential than its current total use of electricity, and it's not unreasonable to expect this clean, non-polluting, renewable energy to supply up to 20% of our energy needs. Corresponding with the increase in the use of wind energy has been a drop in its cost over the past decade, from 30 cents per kilowatt hour to 5.8 cents, from some of the larger wind farms now in operation in Quebec and Alberta.

Across Canada, wind turbine systems are now in operation in Quebec, Ontario, the Yukon, Prince Edward Island, and Alberta. Leading this trend is the Axor Groupe, which created Canada's largest wind farm, Le Nordais, with 133 wind turbines, in the Gaspe region of Quebec. With the completion of this project, enough power will be generated to supply 16,000 households in Quebec. The last 77 turbines for the Le Nordais project came from a newly established assembly plant near Montreal. The ability for Canada to build its own equipment is an important step in building a Canadian wind energy industry, similar to that of Denmark.

In Toronto, the Toronto Renewable Energy Cooperative (TREC) aims to install three turbines along the harbour. When the project is complete, investors will receive a return in the form of savings on their local utility bill when Ontario Hydro buys the wind energy from the cooperative.

Meanwhile, in Southwest Alberta, the Peigan Nation is moving ahead on the construction of a wind farm named Weather-Dancer Wind Power. The system will eventually supply all the power needs of the re- serve's 3000 residents, and could also sell power to the Alberta Power Pool and other interested First Nations across Canada and the United States.

Whether on a large or small scale, these projects are proving that there is both the will and the technology to harness the power of the wind.

Harness the ocean

Ocean-generated energy has huge potential as a renewable energy source.

Wave power is harnessed with a variety of technologies, including devices that produce power by bobbing up and down with the waves–harbour breakwaters, or prefabricated steel caissons.

Tidal power, on the other hand, is generated through the installation of a dam or tidal array (fence) system across an estuary or passage. The system uses a turbine to generate energy and can also be used on fast flowing rivers and streams.

Wave power was under serious development, with the support of the British government, until the program was cut in 1982. Now, however, efficient new designs and technological breakthroughs have reduced the average cost of wave power, making it 10 times cheaper than it was in 1982. With the British government committed to cutting carbon dioxide emissions by converting to at least 10% renewable energy by 2010, there is a good chance this technology will be a reality in the near future.

British interest in wave energy is not surprising, considering that the Atlantic waves that pound the British Isles give them one of the largest wave power resources in the world. Now at least 14 wave power generators are planned across the globe: nine in Europe, four in the Far East, one in the US, and one in India. Some experts believe that wave energy could eventually supply 10% of the world's energy needs.

Tidal power, though using different technology, has at least as much renewable energy potential.

According to Blue Energy Power Systems, in Vancouver BC, tidal power could become the most large-scale renewable energy technology in the world. Currently, two plants exist, one in the Bay of Fundy, Nova Scotia and the other in France.

These systems use tidal dams to generate power. New technology, however, uses a fence-like structure that allows fish migration, silt transport, and marsh land flooding. The structure could also be used as a transportation corridor for automobiles and/or trains. Blue Energy will shortly begin a large demonstration project in the Philippines.

To give an example of the potential power of this energy, a five-to-eight-knot current has the energy generation potential of a 400 km wind. In some parts of the inside passage between Vancouver Island and the mainland of British Columbia, the current reaches up to 18 knots. You do the math.

Harness the sun

World-wide, solar power has grown by an average of 30% annually. Large solar plants, with a capacity ranging from 100 kw to 44 mw, exist on almost every continent, and include countries such as Australia, China, Greece, India, Israel, Japan, the Netherlands, Saudi Arabia, Spain, and the US, to name only a few.

At this time there are three types of solar energy available: photovoltaic, active and passive solar energy.

Photovoltaic (PV) panels convert sunlight into electricity and can be effectively used on roof tops even at northern latitudes. In the past, PV panels were not highly efficient, converting only 12% to 15% of sunlight into electricity. Now, however, laboratory prototypes are reaching 30% efficiency.

The potential for photovoltaic energy is exciting, because it is the only electricity source that can be generated in the urban environment, where most electricity is used.

Active solar systems use solar collectors and additional electricity to power pumps or fans to distribute the sun's energy, while passive solar heating and cooling make use of the steady supply of solar energy, using building designs that balance energy requirements with the building's location and window orientation.

While in the past solar energy systems tended to be used for individual residential or commercial uses, grid-connected photovoltaic systems are now being developed. EPCOR Utilities, with Howell-Mayhew Engineering of Edmonton, has created a research home which on sunny days produces too much electricity for the house, and so turns the meter backwards, feeding into the province's electricity system. At night this system supplies any additional electricity needed by the house. During an average year, 70% of the house's energy is solar. EPCOR has now installed another system on its downtown office building.

On Vancouver Island, British Columbia, the SunWater Project, sponsored by the Earth Festival Society and Taylor Munro Energy Systems, will install 100 solar water heaters in Comox Valley homes. SunWater will be one of the largest demonstrations of residential solar heaters in Canada, and the only one to use a batch solar heater, which is inexpensive and simply designed.

It is hoped that with the success of projects such as those mentioned above, the Canadian government and the public will find more ways to include solar energy as part of a national energy program.

It's noteworthy that the options for tapping into renewable energy sources, such as these listed above, and using the existing power supply system, are already in use.

Green power programs offer electricity from renewable energy sources, typically low- or zero-emission. The electricity is produced at commercial-scale facilities and put on the grid for customers who choose it, often at a small premium, as an alternative to the conventionally available power supply. Green power programs have been developed in many locations, including BC, Alberta, Ontario, the northeastern United States, California, and Colorado.

However, while this may be a start in the right direction, Canada still has a long way to go. According to the Worldwatch Institute's paper, Rising Sun, Gathering Winds, since the Kyoto Protocol, Canada still has one of the worst records of all the industrialized nations when it comes to promoting renewable energy sources.

Worldwatch argues that despite having huge renewable resources, monopoly power companies almost completely block renewables from the power grid. The only way to counteract this problem is through a strong national energy policy, with enforcement, penalties and incentive programs for alternative energy producers.

* Sources: Greenpeace Canada, Canadian Wind Energy Association, Solar Energy Society of Canada, Blue
Energy Canada, Inc., Canadian Renewable Energy Guide, New Scientist, Sunwind Solar Industries, Inc., Sandia National Laboratories, and Worldwatch International.

* Feature sponsored by Friends of Cortes Island Watershed Sentinel Development Fund

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[From WS April/May 2000]

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