By Peter Hadekel, The Montreal Gazette
“Beware of wind developers making extravagant requests.”
Over the last decade, the wind power industry in Quebec has taken off, thanks to generous support from the provincial government.
Hydro-Quebec has launched major tenders for wind projects, which will bring installed capacity to 4,000 megawatts by the year 2015. But the industry wants more. Wrapping itself in green, the colour of choice for energy development these days, it’s clamouring for 8,000 megawatts of additional construction in Quebec by 2025.
Along with the hype about clean, renewable power, come ambitious claims about economic spinoffs if its plan goes ahead, including: $15 billion in construction spending in Quebec over 10 years, 9,800 construction jobs, and compensation of $1.4 billion paid to landowners and municipalities over a 20-year period.
The numbers come from a study released yesterday by the Canadian Wind Energy Association at its convention in Montreal.
This looks like big money for Quebec, but it’s time to check which way the wind is blowing. Experts are increasingly skeptical about the value of Big Wind in the energy mix.
At least the industry is honest enough about its goal, which is to insure it gets more contracts in Quebec after current jobs are completed in 2015.
“One of our concerns is to see that this industry continues to grow” and that current employment is maintained, says Jean-Francois Nolet of the Wind Energy Association.
Okay, but what’s in it for the rest of us?
The plan calls for far more energy than Quebec requires, given current demand. The current price for wind generation, at 12.5 cents a kilowatt-hour, already represents a subsidy to developers.
“Quebec, in the short term, doesn’t need any more power,” says Pierre-Olivier Pineau, an energy specialist at the HEC Montreal business school.
“There are a lot of new projects already under way in wind and hydro. We have a nuclear energy plant (at Gentilly) that is being refurbished. We could also produce more electricity from natural gas.”
Of course, responding to climate change is one of the stated goals of wind power advocates. Getting off hydrocarbons is often cited as a reason for building wind farms.
But the capacity of wind turbines is usually between 20 and 30 per cent, which is another way of saying that the wind blows only some of the time. While you can add wind to the energy mix, you can’t really replace the need for conventionally generated electricity, at least in the short term.
“By far the most profitable choice for Quebecers would be to invest in energy efficiency,” Pineau says. And one good way to create financial incentives for such conservation is to charge the market price for electricity instead of continuing to sell it below the cost of new production. “If we’re really in favour o sustainable development, we should avoid building new projects which will just add to production capacity” and continue to encourage overconsumption, Pineau says.
With greater efficiency, the real cost of consumption could be reduced well below the 12.5 cents a kilowatt hour the government now offers to wind developers, he notes.
“It makes sense to pursue a winning solution,” Pineau says. Other experts are coming to the same conclusion.
In the state of Vermont, where 10 wind projects are on the drawing board thanks to a tax credit offered to producers, it makes more sense to pursue solar energy instead, says Ben Luce, a professor of physics at Lyndon State College and former co-chairman of the U.S. Coalition for Clean Affordable Energy.
Breakthroughs in photovoltaic technology have dramatically lowered the cost of solar production to the point where solar energy may soon be competitive with other sources of power, he argues.
Installation of solar cells is far less disruptive to the environment than the construction of 500-foot wind turbines, which create visual pollution, hazards for birds and low-frequency noise problems for people living nearby.
Luce says far more energy could be generated in Vermont from solar panels than if every ridgeline in the state was turned over to wind farms.
So beware of wind developers making extravagant requests. What they really want is your money.