Wind at our backs

Lawrence Solomon
National Post
October 8, 2004

In a pinch, Canada could meet 100% of its electricity needs with wind power, numerous studies indicate. A report released last week by the authoritative General Accounting Office in the United States shows just how attainable a 100% wind power society would be.

The United States, with a smaller land mass than Canada, already meets the needs of two million households through wind power and is adding to that total by putting the equivalent of about 500,000 additional homes on wind power each year. If those windmills were in Canada instead, we would be meeting the needs of about 2.5 million Canadian households through wind by the end of the year. That 2.5 million represents about one-fifth of Canada’s households.

Germany, with an area one-thirtieth that of Canada, blows even stronger, having built more than twice as much wind capacity as the United States. If Germany’s windmills were in Canada, we could now be meeting the needs of about five million households with wind power – more than 40% of all Canadian households. The land mass of just two and a half Germanies, in other words, would be enough to meet all of Canada’s household needs, using existing wind technologies.

Wind technologies haven’t been standing pat, however. Year after year for more than two decades now, this fabled but long-ignored technology has been getting more and more efficient, relentlessly driving down costs. In the 1980s, power from wind often cost US30 cents a kilowatt-hour. Today, says the U.S. Department of Energy, the cost is between US3 cents and US6 cents, allowing it to out-compete many conventional technologies on both sides of the border. In Alberta, for example, the cost of wind power being built by TransAlta is about 5 cents to 6 cents a kilowatt-hour, well below the 9 cents-plus the governments of Manitoba and Ontario may spend to bring power to market from Conawapa, a proposed new mega-dam on Manitoba’s Nelson River. Wind has long been cheaper than nuclear power and at today’s fossil fuel prices, wind power competes well against both oil and gas.

Even before the recent run-up in oil and gas prices, wind power was sweeping the world, with a five-fold increase in capacity since 1997. In the United States, wind power has been increasing at a 28%-per-year clip, far exceeding U.S. government expectations, and there’s no let-up in sight. As it is, 90% of U.S. wind power is generated in just 10 states, more than 50% in just three states. According to a U.S. Department of Energy study, three states alone – North Dakota, Texas and Kansas – could meet the entire energy needs of the United States.

Wind power, of course, currently meets an insignificant part of the power needs of most Western countries. The reason? For almost a century, wind power has suffered a great curse called Public Power. In the early decades of the 20th century, before governments landed hard on the electricity business, windmills were ubiquitous in many farming regions of Canada and the United States, generally to pump water. Because electricity could not be economically brought to rural areas from city power plants, entrepreneurs successfully adapted windmills to small-scale farm use. By the mid-1920s, such companies as Parris-Dunn and Jacobs Wind-electric were electrifying farms throughout the rural areas of the Midwestern prairies, first by providing lighting and charging batteries for crystal radio sets, then, as the technologies advanced, by powering refrigerators, freezers, washing machines, power tools and other appliances. The future seemed bright for windmills; they were the most economical source of power for much of rural North America.

Public Power then blew on to the scene, in the form of rural electrification programs that offered farmers power at deep discounts if they switched from windmill-generated electricity to power from a centralized grid, brought to rural areas at great expense. The windmill entrepreneurs, unable to compete against the government-mandated subsidies, were snuffed out, ending their innovations and replacing their renewable-energy technology with power from remote power utilities that typically relied on burning coal. Wind technology remained extinguished for decades, until the environmental movement resurrected it in the late 1970s. Now wind technology is roaring back, logging the fastest growth of any energy technology in the world.

Wind has many selling points, apart from its availability. It doesn’t pollute, it doesn’t run out. And unlike most of its competitors, its cost keeps falling. Yet despite these attractions, a crash program to switch us to wind would be a mistake. Other energy forms also have their attractions, and they, too, are plentiful. Canada’s tar sands have enough petroleum to run our power plants indefinitely. Our natural gas is also endless for all practical purposes, as are our uranium, our coal and our solar-energy resources. The availability of energy is not at issue, only the cost, cleanliness and safety of our energy choices.

In all these areas, governments have spoiled the electricity marketplace by subsidizing all energy forms – oil and gas, wind and solar, coal and nuclear. The subsidies have enabled dirty fuels, such as coal, to compete and dangerous ones, such as nuclear, to exempt themselves from legal liability. The subsidies have turned reality inside out, making the implausible seem normal and the normal seem impossible.

Without subsidies, windmills would be a commonplace that dotted our countryside and perhaps our cities, too, while nuclear power would be a rarity, mostly limited to the university and government research labs that could afford them. Without subsidies, we would consume less natural gas and oil, and be much more efficient in our use of power, using perhaps half as much as we do today to enjoy the same standard of living.

Without subsidies, we would have assured energy supplies. Instead, we subsidize energy and suffer periodic shortages. All because our politicians have no principles to guide them, and go whichever way the wind blows.

Lawrence Solomon is executive director of Urban Renaissance Institute and Consumer Policy Institute, divisions of Toronto-based Energy Probe Research Foundation.

Readers’ respond

Tilting at windmills

Lawrence Solomon seems to think that we can install thousands of wind-turbines and get all the electricity that Canada requires from them. It’s a nice dream, but dream it is.

In Britain the aim is to achieve 20% of their requirements from wind power. They are beginning to realize that they can’t even approach 20%. Even that windy environmentalist, the Prince of Wales, is crying enough already. The Brits have had enough of those ugly things cluttering up their countryside and killing songbirds. The Germans are also saying they want no more.

It doesn’t matter how inexpensive wind power gets – it will never approach the cost of conventional methods of generation.

The wind is fickle and cannot be controlled by mere man. When the wind doesn’t blow, or blows too hard, we get no power. If the breeze is light we get very little power. For every watt of wind power there must be an equal amount of conventional power available. So we must install conventional backup power. If we are to avoid blackouts this backup power must be what is known as spinning power. In other words, the backup generators must be running consuming energy ready to switch in instantly.

Jim Brennand, Regina, October 18, 2004

Re: Lawrence Solomon, “Wind at Our Backs,” Oct. 8. Mr. Solomon states “In a pinch, Canada could meet 100% of its electricity needs with wind power, numerous studies indicate.”

“The pinch” would be after closure of about 80% of all major heavy industry (auto, aircraft, mining, smelting, sawmills, pulp and paper, shipbuilding, refining, manufacturing etc.), with the accompanying loss of jobs. It would also require draconian government interference rationing us all to no more than a couple of 100 watt light bulbs for light, and outlawing electrical heating, and most electronic toys and electrical tools for home use. The same government would also have to change a few natural items, like banning some of the winter weather that we in Canada are exposed to each year, and put a hold on the cold winter months.

Those industries that managed to plug along would have their “hours of work” tied to those days and times when the wind was blowing steadily, with work disruptions at unpredictable hours, and with numerous days and weeks when sometimes there would be no work at all. Welcome back to the Dirty Thirties.

There are some uses where wind power has real value (pumping water, charging batteries, and maybe even electrolyzing water (eventually) to produce hydrogen, but putting electricity onto the grid is not one of them unless you have no other choices.

Yes, wind-power is the fastest growing source of electricity. When you start from close to zero, any addition is a massive percentage. However, in terms of megawatts added each year, it cannot even keep up with the required annual growth in electrical demand in most advancing countries.

Other environmentalists decry windmills’ blight on the landscape. The major rare bird kills (which is why windmills are also called the “cuisinarts” of the bird world), and now, as revealed in Texas, stupendous killers of bats. They are also great lightning rods.

Contrary to Mr. Solomon’s selective view of history, the prairie farmers welcomed the electrical grid as an assured and affordable source of electricity, and were mostly glad to let their rattling windmills rust out if they did not need them to pump water. No-one had to twist their arms.

John K. Sutherland, energy consultant, Fredericton, October 18, 2004

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