In this article we’ll look at wind power in Canada: how the system works, the global and national contexts, economic feasibility, and future prospects.
This is the first article in a series about energy generation in Canada. With the heralding of renewable energy in recent years, we need a basic understanding of the different elements to better inform our collective decisions.
A Look at Wind Power
From a sustainability standpoint, this renewable energy source has many positive attributes.
Unlike hydro, which can destroy watersheds up and downstream of dams, and solar, which requires mining for its core materials, windmills themselves have very little impact on the environment.
There is some controversy surrounding whether are not they are harmful to airborne wildlife, but a look at the numbers shows wind power causes fewer bird deaths than other forms of energy generation. This reference also shows that human behaviours, outside of industry, have far greater impacts on bird life.
Our cold climate can impact the turbines themselves, and steps have to be taken to mitigate ice buildup on the propellers. Road access also needs to be maintained in winter, especially since windfarms are usually far away from major urban and transport routes, and often in the middle of vast tracts of land.
Windfarms also require the construction of transmission lines to tie them into existing power infrastructure.
Finally, their energy generation isn’t entirely predictable because it is completely dependent on the wind, without any capacity for storage.
When mills overproduce, the excess power can be exported. However, in times of no wind, power generation has to come from another source.
These are the main factors to consider when thinking about wind power as a method of electricity generation. There are many positive attributes, but they are not without their drawbacks.
Global and National Contexts
Overall, Canada ranks ninth in the world for wind power capacity. The top three are China, US, and Germany.
According to Natural Resources Canada, wind makes up 4.4% of our electricity supply.
Ontario, Quebec, and Alberta have the top wind capacity, but it is worth mentioning 97.9% of PEI’s electricity comes from wind power.
Renewable energy accounts for 67% of Canadian electricity generation, with hydro making up the majority of that production at 60%
Wind power has grown 16% a year over the past decade and, perhaps most importantly for its economic viability, the cost has decreased 70% since 2009.
All these facts, and many other great details, are available in this infographic.
Perhaps the most important fact is that wind power is now the lowest cost source of new electricity generation in Canada.
Due to technological advancement, costs have decreased rapidly. This is shown by looking at recent bid prices.
During Ontario’s wind power debacle with the last government, they were paying four times as much for their wind power as the Alberta government is paying today. Although, it is important to note that some of Ontario’s higher rates may have been an indirect means of subsidizing wind power and attracting investment.
In Alberta, power companies agree on a bid price with the government. Most recently 3.9 cents/ kilowatt hour. In times of high demand and higher prices, anything the company earns above that limit is paid back to the government. In lower demand times, the government pays the company to make sure they are receiving their 3.9 cents/ kWh.
The cost of wind power generation varies across the country, with each province agreeing to its own framework. But it is clear that with the gains in efficiencies, wind is a major contender for provinces that have the right conditions for wind generation.
If wind being the cheapest form of new power generation wasn’t already a indicator of its future prospects, some provinces like Alberta and Saskatchewan have passed mandates requiring a significant portion of their future electricity needs be met with renewables.
In New Zeland, wind farms are able to operate without government subsidies. It would appear that wind energy itself has become an economical option, free from any extra funding to stay afloat.
One of the main issues in Canada, however, is the lack of growth in power demand.
Through to 2040, Canadian electricity demand will only grow by 0.7% a year.
These small growth rates may not be enough to justify large, new projects for electricity generation. Also, windfarms would have to compete against other sectors for these small market shares.
So, although wind power has become a viable, cost effective option for electricity generation, its implementation may be hindered by the lack of growth in power generation in general.
On the other hand, provinces may see the benefit of its cleaner track record as motivation to accelerate the phasing out of more polluting power generators.
In today’s world, energy discussions are a priority for many governments and people.
With that in mind, wind power will certainly continue being explored as a sustainable option.