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In Depth

| 02/25/16

National wind energy group quits BC in a huff


Canada’s wind energy lobby group is quitting British Columbia, complaining the provincial government is not serious about developing the sector compared to its support for hydroelectricity.

The Ottawa-headquartered Canadian Wind Energy Association (CanWEA) announced last week that it is closing up its shop in the western-most province. It is to pull its regional director from BC and will focus more on Alberta and Saskatchewan, the trade association’s vice-president of policy, Jean-François Nolet, wrote in a letter to CanWEA’s members.

Alberta’s NDP government last November announced that by 2030 it wants to phase out its coal-fired power plants, which generate 55 percent of its electricity, and replace them with renewably-sourced electricity, primarily via subsidies to wind and solar. The same month, Saskatchewan’s power company declared that it aimed to produce 50 percent of its electricity from hydro, wind, solar and geothermal sources by 2030, up from the current 25 percent (20% hydro, 5% wind).

“While BC has tremendous untapped potential for wind energy,” CanWEA president Robert Hornung told Business in Vancouver magazine, “it’s also true that, at this time, there’s no vision of short-term opportunities emerging in BC.”

The sector has built four large-scale wind farms in the province, with a fifth set to start generating later this year. But BC Hydro has said it is unlikely to issue fresh calls for power from independent producers until 2030. The public energy company believes the controversial Site C hydroelectric dam currently under construction is sufficient to meet demand growth. While other onshore and offshore wind projects have been proposed, without power purchase agreements from BC, CanWEA thinks the future of the industry in BC is grim.

Some of the trade association’s members however, are not quite so pessimistic.

“It’s an understandable wake-up call to the BC government,” Juergen Puetter, the president of Aeolis Wind, developer of the province’s first wind farm, Bear Mountain, told the News Scan. “But I don’t subscribe to the doom and gloom. BC Hydro is tremendously underestimating future demand.”

He says both transport and industrial processes need to be electrified in order to become a zero-emission economy, and highlights in particular the need for the government’s liquefied natural gas (LNG) ambitions to be powered by clean electricity instead of fossil fuels. “But the government and BC Hydro aren’t conceiving of that, and soon the chickens will come home to roost.”

However, BC is not the only location in North America where wind energy has hit the buffers. South of the border, wind energy development is flat and analysts reckon Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana are just about saturated. Because wind is intermittent, it works as a ‘displacement energy source’, displacing its back-up, typically coal or gas. But hydropower already provides the bulk of electricity in the US Pacific Northwest, with a minority share for fossil fuels and nuclear.

The $2.5 billion Cape Wind project off Cape Cod in Massachusetts, which would have been the first major offshore wind farm in the United States, last month suffered what many analysts fear is a fatal blow when two utilities that were to purchase most of its power cancelled contracts due to financing issues. In 2011, the Ontario government placed a moratorium on offshore wind development.

Meanwhile across the Atlantic, wind is booming, particularly in Denmark, Portugal and Spain. Offshore wind capacity in the European Union doubled between 2011 and 2014. So what’s the difference between Europe and North America?

“The problem with [North American projects] is they are too expensive,” says energy systems expert and engineer Andrew Rowe, the head of PICS’ 2060 Integrated Energy Pathways project. “The development of offshore wind in Europe has come through special tariffs to cover the capital costs – and these are pretty substantial tariffs.”

North America meanwhile a tough market because of the relatively low energy prices of other options, and weaker market incentives. “I think there will be some significant onshore wind in the future, but it will likely need policy support if gas prices stay low.”

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