We have oil. For the moment.
But what else do we have?
We have lots of wind.
In fact, Newfoundland and Labrador is the windiest province in Canada. But right now we have only three small wind energy projects operating here, and generating electricity from wind is still low on our list of priorities.
But are we overlooking what could become our biggest energy resource?
While European countries are setting to work building massive onshore and offshore wind farms just across the way, our provincial government is single-mindedly pursuing the development of the Lower Churchill for hydroelectric projects. Is wind energy for Newfoundland and Labrador getting lost in the shuffle?
With the following three articles, The Scope will take a look at what’s blowing in the wind…
Wind vs. Hydro
By Justin Brake
Standing before a crowd of about 1,500 in Los Angeles, California, Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Danny Williams seems in fine form.
He’s at the Governor’s Global Climate Summit 2, organized by none other than California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, where academics, NGO reps, energy industry executives, and government officials from around the world have gathered there to discuss their role in addressing climate change.
Newfoundland and Labrador has unparalleled potential for the development of a substantial renewable energy industry, Williams proclaims, saying a transition from oil-based energy to clean, renewable energy will play a significant role in the province’s strategy to address climate change.
But to end the province’s dependence on oil-based power, Williams is looking to the controversial Lower Churchill Project, which includes plans for two hydroelectric dams in the Churchill River – one at Gull Island and one downstream at Muskrat Falls. It’s claimed that the project will produce energy for 1.5 million homes with little environmental impact.
“There was a tremendous amount of interest in the Lower Churchill project, as it was recognized by many I spoke with as a phenomenal green energy project,” Williams writes in a press release issued on the last day of the summit. “This hydroelectricity project is a simple, tried, tested and true technology for delivery of clean, green energy for North America.”
So what in Joey’s name are we waiting for?
Dr. Piotr Trela, Climate Change and Energy Coordinator for the Sierra Club Canada’s Atlantic chapter and member of the Atlantic Canada Sustainable Energy Coalition St. John’s is not quite as enthusiastic about the Lower Churchill Project.
“I think there’s a danger in concentrating too much on this project, which has pretty serious financial and environmental issues,” he says. “We may be neglecting a whole range of other projects which could produce as much energy, probably at a lower cost, and with more benefits actually going to the communities as opposed to the provincial government.”
Instead, Trela advocates a province-wide network of community-owned and operated energy generation projects, comprised primarily of wind farms but also of strategically-placed small hydro dams.
These options, he says, seem to have been overlooked.
According to Trela, the Lower Churchill Project falls pretty short of “green.” Forest clearing, methane-producing pools of stagnant water and wildlife displacement are just a few of the problems the project will bring to the area, he says.
Small scale wind farms and hydro dams, on the other hand, can have pretty minimal ecological footprints, he says.
“Every form of energy production will have some consequences,” he explains. “But some of those consequences are different for different types of energy. It also depends on the scale and on the particular location. You can do a lot of damage if you put a wind farm in the wrong place if you have, say, bird migration, or if you put it next to houses and people complain about the noise.”
“Generally though,” he says, “wind power seems to have one of the least amounts of environmental problems associated with it.”
In terms of greenhouse gases, Premier Williams is adamant the Lower Churchill will produce “clean” energy.
“We will, over the next 30 years, as we move into the repatriation of the Upper Churchill, go from a fossil fuel economy to a very much clean, green economy,” the Premier told The Muse upon returning from California. “Ninety-eight per cent of our electricity, for example, will be clean and green.”
The term “clean” typically implies a zero-carbon emission standard. But, as Trela explains, this is not possible with large scale hydro projects.
“If water is stagnant, it produces methane, which is a potent greenhouse gas,” he says, referring to the reservoirs that would likely result from the necessary flooding of drylands. “So if you hear that [large hydroelectric dams] are a greenhouse gas-free source of energy, it’s not entirely true.”
Conversely, wind farms produce minimal carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions, says Trela.
“The primary objective of the Lower Churchill is the export of energy,” says Trela. “And, I mean, that’s a part of the thinking. We take the oil, which has been mainly exported and is non-renewable, and use the profits to build a basis for the renewable system. My problem is that the alternative to the one big mega project was never given a chance to be heard.”
Where are all the windmills?
By Sarah Smellie
Mayor Wayde Rowsell gets downright dreamy when he talks about it.
“From all different focal points here in St. Lawrence, you can see these majestic towers against the blue sky and the rugged terrain,” he says, pausing for a contented sigh. “It’s just beautiful.”
St. Lawrence—on the southern edge of the Burin peninsula—is the kind of town where, on a mellow Friday afternoon, the direct line from City Hall to Rowsell’s office is his home phone number. But it just so happens to be famous for energy innovation, being the site of the province’s very first wind farm; nine Vestas V90 wind turbines line the shore just within the town limits.
All together, the sleek, triple-bladed rotor towers push a maximum of 27 megawatt hours of energy onto the island’s power grid.
“It’s brought a lot of wind change and a lot of political change,” chuckles Rowsell.
Initially, the construction of the 80 meter-high towers created over fifty jobs for the community. Now that they’re up and running, there are six full-time employees tending to them.
The project has also been a boon for St. Lawrence’s tax base.
“We signed off a twenty-year tax deal which will equate to a minimum of two million dollars over those 20 years,” Roswell explains. NeWind Inc., the company that owns the farm, has also committed to a donation of $30,000 over five years to the St. Lawrence Soccer Association—a fine way to make friends in a town that christened itself Canada’s Soccer Capital.
“I wouldn’t mind if we had three or four of these wind farms, it’s been such a positive thing here,” says Rowsell.
Over in Fermeuse—on the Avalon’s Southern Shore—they’re reaping similar benefits from their wind farm, which was completed in the spring. “I use the access road as a walking trail, and the sight of those windmills is something amazing,” says the freshly elected Mayor Perry Oates. “Last week, there were even three tourists with cameras.”
The Fermeuse project, owned by SkyPower Inc., spreads up over the side of a hill a few kilometers outside of town. It’s identical to the St. Lawrence farm—nine Vestas V90s spinning away in the breeze. Combined, the two farms generate a maximum of 54 megawatt hours for the province. That powers 14,000 homes without burning a drop of oil. In fact the power generated from the wind farms has cut down the Holyrood Power Station’s oil consumption by 3330,000 barrels a year.
Oates says he’s never heard a negative thing about the farm. The project has brought jobs, people and tax money. Like Rowsell, he finds the structures to be quite remarkable. “You stand under them and look up and you think, ‘My Christ, how did we ever build such magnificent things?’ “
Perhaps the real question is: Why aren’t we building more of these magnificent things?
According to Greg Jones, Manager of Business Development at Nalcor Energy, the limited wind power is due to the limited Newfoundland power grid. “Wind is predictable, we know how much we’ll get per year, but we don’t know when and how fast it will come,” he explains. Neither the Fermeuse nor the St. Lawrence wind farms have mechanisms to store and streamline the power they generate, so the wattage output varies with the wind speed – high-velocity winds throw maximum power onto the Newfoundland grid. In these situations, Jones says there’s nowhere on our grid to push the surplus of power from more wind turbines.
“I’m not sure why that last storm we had didn’t get named,” he laughs. “But we had to shut down [the connection at] Fermeuse.”
A new Wind-hydrogen Diesel project in Ramea, which Jones describes as “strictly R&D,” is using hydrogen technology to store surplus wind energy and dodge grid problems. Wind-generated electricity converts fresh water into hydrogen and oxygen. The oxygen is released into the atmosphere and the hydrogen is stored in two tanks. It can then be used in an internal combustion engine to produce electricity. Its off-the-grid technology is promising for small scale operations, but for large, island-wide power, it’s just not feasible. We’re stuck on the grid.
“So the 54 megawatts from these two projects are as close to the maximum that we could put on our grid right now,” he says. “That is, according to the theory.”
The actuality might be very different. “Studies may show holes in the system which could store more energy,” he says. If holes are revealed, they’ll be looking to wind power to fill them. “There are more monitoring towers reading wind levels as we speak.”
Ultimately, he believes that a connection to the North American grid is going to be our ticket out of non-renewable energy dependence.
“At times when we have surplus wind generation, we’ll push it onto the grid,” he says. “We’ll be able to shut down [the power station at] Holyrood.”
“A renewable future for our province is a very real thing,” he adds.
Over in St. Lawrence, Mayor Rowsell agrees that things are sounding pretty good. “You stand up by these gigantic wind towers and if you’re very close, you can hear a swishing noise from the blades, and that’s it. That’s the only noise you hear from them while they’re doing all that work,” he says.
“We’re striving for a more environmentally friendly way to power the rural communities and this is it.”
In the back yard
Imagine being free of annoying light bills and reducing carbon emissions at the same time.
That’s what having a wind turbine on your property provides.
While many say residential turbines are not the only answer to our energy problems, they are still considered a step in the right direction.
With a combination of economic and environmental advantages, you’d think wind turbines would be everywhere. But according to one local businessman, setting things up can be an unnecessarily confusing and time-consuming process.
Shawn Hayward looks at the rules surrounding residential wind turbines.
Ten years ago, Gerry Skinner discovered the practical draw of renewable energy. After helping a friend install a solar panel onto his cottage, a neighbour said he wanted to save on his electricity bill by getting one for his cottage as well.
“It caught on, and we realized this could be a profitable and fulfilling profession,” says Chris Skinner, Gerry’s son and co-owner of New Found Energies, a company that installs wind turbines and solar panels in residential buildings.
The more energy a turbine creates the less people have to buy from Newfoundland Power. Wind turbines pay themselves off in seven to eight years, according to Skinner, and have a life span of about 20 years.
The turbines can generate all or part of a home’s power, depending on how far the homeowner wants to go, but Skinner says it’s his goal that each installation is able to generate as much power as the household buys from the public provider.
Since opening in 2000, New Found Energies has installed over a hundred turbines across Newfoundland, but Skinner says obstacles from both levels of government are slowing the growth of turbines across the suburban landscape.
Nalcor, the provincial Crown corporation which controls energy resources, hasn’t made its policy on household turbines clear, according to Skinner. People still don’t know that wind turbines are an energy option.
“They don’t encourage people to do it,” says Skinner. “We’re always trying to get something concrete for the homeowner, so that someone can go to the website and download what their regulations are on it.”
Municipalities such as Stephenville on the west coast have banned wind turbines completely, citing noise complaints, safety concerns and aesthetics. Portugal Cove-St. Phillips is one community that allows wind turbines, and St. John’s recently approved a wind turbine in the Goulds.
The capital city judges each application individually based on the location of the home, according to a city official. A turbine close to other houses will create more noise complaints than one far from any neighbours.
Skinner says there is no reason for noise complaints against wind turbines. “Ambient noise alone in an area can usually drown out a wind turbine,” he says.
The only obstacles for people in municipalities that allow wind turbines are the suitability of their property for the structures. Tall trees and buildings can decrease the energy produced, and high wind speeds can damage the turbine. The direction of prevailing winds doesn’t matter because most turbines turn automatically to face the wind.
Green energy has been a much-talked about issue over the past few years, but Skinner says none have his customers have benefited from tax rebates to reward them for the carbon dioxide they are taking out of the atmosphere.
“It’s a hard sell because there’s no incentive from the government or utility to produce your own energy,” he says. “The user is on his own to fund this.”
Newfoundland is the best location for wind energy in Canada, according to Dr. Mohammed T. Iqbal, associate professor of electrical engineering at Memorial University, who specializes in renewable energy. The average wind speed must be higher than six metres per second to make a wind turbine viable, Dr. Iqbal says, and with the highest average wind speed in the country, most of Newfoundland and Labrador meets that requirement.
The price of oil affects the economics of wind generation, according to Dr. Iqbal. The higher the price of oil, the more public utilities like Newfoundland Power must charge their customers for energy, and the greater incentive people will have to provide their own electricity. Right now about 20 per cent of power on the island comes from burning fossil fuels.
While there is an oil and gas degree program at Memorial University, there’s no program for renewable energy here or anywhere else in Canada. Dr. Iqbal teaches a single course dedicated to renewable energy, the rest of his time devoted to general electrical engineering.
Dr. Iqbal says more engineers specializing in wind power generation would provide more manpower to build the structures and research more efficient ways of harnessing the wind.
“It would be very good if we had a degree program at MUN or any university in Canada and graduates were coming from the program to these new installations,” he says.
Wind energy in Canada now produces enough energy to power 560,000 homes. In September, the Ontario Power Authority (OPA) announced a program that makes it easier and more profitable for people to set up renewable energy systems like wind turbines. Homeowners can sell the excess power they generate to OPA after filing an application and signing a contract, and all relevant information is provided on a user-friendly website.
Household wind turbines are still a rare sight in this province, even with our famously strong breezes. If utilities made the process less complicated, if municipalities didn’t deny applications, and the provincial or federal government offered incentives for household green energy production, there would be a lot more turbine blades in the air, and a lot less smoke.
Wind farm in Fermeuse