How green was my wind turbine

MARGARET WENTE
February 26, 2009

Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty is nothing if not a visionary. He recently released a $2.2-million report, co-authored by intellectual glamourpuss Richard Florida, instructing us that the province’s salvation lies in becoming more “creative.” No specifics were supplied, but it sounded quite delightful. If only we can turn laid-off auto workers into art gallery owners, things will be swell!

This week, the future’s looking even better, thanks to the Premier’s fabulous new Green Energy and Green Economy Act. This visionary scheme will create 50,000 green jobs, more clean electricity and a healthier planet for our children. It doesn’t get better than that.

“It’s transformational,” said John Kourtoff, CEO of Trillium Power Wind Corp., which wants to build a giant wind farm at the eastern end of Lake Ontario. “The Green Energy Act will serve as a turning point in Ontario’s economic history.” No doubt. It will also serve as a massive transfer of wealth to wind companies such as Trillium Power. The wind companies will get a guaranteed payment that will probably be at least twice what consumers are paying for their electricity now. The solar outfits will get an even bigger subsidy – maybe 10 times more.

Not surprisingly, wind companies from all over are lining up for a piece of the free money. Little citizens’ groups have sprung up across the province to try to stop them from erecting 35-storey wind turbines in their backyards. But the Premier’s energy minister, George Smitherman (a.k.a. The Enforcer), has declared that he will squash the NIMBYs like a bug.

I have wind turbines coming to my backyard, too. I wouldn’t mind – if only they made sense. If only they could really help us break our addiction to coal and oil, cut our emissions etc. But they can’t.

One problem with wind power is, it’s not reliable. No wind, no power. No one has figured out how to store the energy from wind. That means you always need a backup source of conventional energy (natural gas, for example) to keep the lights from going out.

Wind power also eats up vast amounts of land (to say nothing of steel, cement and new transmission lines). To power a toaster, you need about 100 square metres of windy land, according to Rockefeller University’s Jesse Ausubel. To power the city of New York, you’d need a wind farm the size of Connecticut.

But the real problem is this: Technologies succeed when they start to achieve economies of scale. That hasn’t happened with renewables. Barack Obama’s energy secretary, Stephen Chu, acknowledges that we need major scientific breakthroughs before wind, solar and biomass will become as cheap and easy to use as oil and coal. That’s why Mr. Obama is planning to invest billions in basic energy research. “Everything you can think of that is a renewable – or somewhat more renewable – energy option has roadblocks to it, and needs a science solution,” says George Crabtree, co-chair of a new U.S. Energy Department task force.

Right now, the best way to cut our dependence on fossil fuels is to focus on conservation. The trouble is, that’s boring. A picture of a smart meter simply does not say “visionary.” For that, you need a picture of happy little children frolicking among the wind turbines. Nor will conservation create 50,000 jobs. Better to pretend those laid-off auto workers will find creative new careers harvesting the wind.

“Ontario’s Green Energy Act could propel the province past California as the most innovative North American leader in the renewable energy field,” gushes renowned environmental activist Denis Hayes. For all our sakes, let’s hope not. California invested heavily in renewables, until it ran out of energy and had to load up on natural gas in a hurry. Today, the state is disastrously broke, its power rates are astronomically high and manufacturers are leaving in droves. Twenty years from now, wind turbines, like ethanol, could well be obsolete. But hey! Every premier has got to have a vision.

mwente@globeandmail.com