Nova Scotia, New Brunswick & the Whacky Wind

N.S. Premier Darrell Dexter

Canada East Telegraph Journal

Jane announced to her family, as she had every day that week, “Dinner will be some time between six and nine. It depends when the electricity will be available to run the stove. In the meantime, you can watch TV. I’m sure it will be on often enough that you can understand the program.”

Premier Darrell Dexter has said the province will strive to get 40 per cent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020. If their electricity came only from wind turbines, this is a scenario that they would face regularly.

Exaggeration? No.

A wind turbine generates power only when the wind is strong enough. Power falls off sharply below the design optimum of 50 km/h. (For the technically minded, output rises and falls with the cube of wind speed, so halving wind speed reduces power to one-eighth.) And the wind is usually weakest when electrical demand is the highest – the coldest days in winter and the hottest days of summer.

One just has to go out in the wind to sense that it varies continuously, so talk of a wind farm being able to power 15,000 homes, or whatever number the promoters throw out, is just so much hot air. Wind power can never be used to produce base-load electricity that must be there when you throw the switch.

The only way that reliable electricity can be guaranteed is the conventional power plants that the trendies deplore. You know, the plants that use coal, oil, gas, water, or nuclear fuel and provide a steady flow of electricity any time it is needed.

“But the wind turbines feed into a grid and the grid balances out the fluctuations,” claim the wind-turbine enthusiasts. That’s the basis on which large numbers of wind farms have been built. But the capacity of a grid to balance power is limited. German power engineers don’t want more than 4 per cent of their electricity coming from variable sources, and Ontario engineers have set a limit at 10 per cent. Why? Because a sudden drop or increase in electricity fed to the grid will destabilize the balance that must be maintained between input and the load. Destabilization can mean failure of the grid – blackout.

Were NB Power engineers ever consulted about adding wind turbines to their power grid? Or are the turbines just a vanity project that will get politicians’ names in the paper?

At times of low wind, grid managers must have conventional generating units available. Denmark, the poster child of wind power, has not been able to close down a single conventional power plant despite the large number of wind turbines that they have installed. When the wind is too strong and producing more power than they need, they can only sell the power to adjoining countries at giveaway prices. And when there is no wind, they have to use their back-up power plants or buy it from those neighboring countries.

Generating plants can’t be spooled up or down quickly (except hydro), so any thermal plant has to be kept hot with the generators spinning. If the plant is only running but not putting out power, it is consuming fuel and producing nothing. Very wasteful, in Denmark or here.

Wind turbines are big and ugly. And typically, a fifth of them are idle because of mechanical problems. They are also noisy, even at considerable distances: An endless rumbling. Whining from the gearbox. Blade tips whipping through the air at more than 200 km/h. A thump as each blade passes the tower. And optical flickering from the blades. Add to that a risk of ice being thrown off the blades in the winter. And not for nothing are turbines known as “Cuisinarts of the Air” for their ability to slice and dice birds and bats, typically 20 to 40 per turbine every year.

We’ve been sold the story that wind turbines are the answer to many problems. The reality is that they bring new ones, and at great cost, both in constructing them and their power lines and in the tax breaks and unrealistic rates paid for their almost-unusable electricity.

We should run the turbines that now exist to establish solid cost figures and gain experience integrating their slugs of power into the grid.

But no more wind farms should be built in New Brunswick for several years.

And our government should never invest our money in them at any time.

Ian L. McQueen holds BSc and MEngSc degrees in chemical engineering.