Opinion: Wind energy marks milestone but faces headwind

June 12, 2014 by  
Filed under Green Energy News

On April 23, something impressive happened in Alberta and the good news is no one noticed. It was a particularly windy morning, and for the first time, more than 1,000 megawatts of wind energy was generating electricity on the grid. That meant that enough electricity supply was coming from emissions-free, renewable wind energy to power almost every home in the province.

Kudos belong to the Alberta Electric System Operator (AESO) for no one noticing, as this was the most wind the system had ever handled. In fact, it is far above the threshold of 900 megawatts that was perceived as a de facto limit only seven years ago. Now, with state-of-the-art weather forecasting, data networking and communication systems, as well as a 20-year track record of wind power on the system in Alberta, the AESO is already handling almost twice as much wind capacity on our system, and is prepared for much more.

Wind is already providing more than five per cent of our annual electricity supply in Alberta — more than enough to power one out of every three homes in the province. While there is a lot more to do, the energy generated by the current wind fleet is roughly the same as an entire year of pollution-free electricity once every 20 years. Given Alberta’s electricity system produces almost as much greenhouse gases as the oilsands do, a year off every couple of decades is a good start.

Wind energy has the potential to deliver a lot more. While Alberta is among wind energy leaders in Canada, we are trailing compared to many of our neighbours to the south. More than 10 U.S. states have more than 10 per cent of their annual generation coming from the wind, with Iowa and South Dakota already generating one-quarter of their annual needs from wind energy. These states are greening their grids and finding that those with the most wind energy have had the lowest electricity price increases in the country, thanks in part to the fact that the cost of “fuel� for wind turbines is stable at zero dollars.

While wind clearly behaves differently than coal and natural gas (where most of Alberta’s electricity comes from), system operators across North America have been successfully learning how to handle higher and higher levels on the system. This experience has put to rest simplistic assumptions that wind needs one-to-one backup, as the system already handles variation in daily demand, unexpected loss of supply, planned maintenance and repair, and other factors that cause sudden shifts in load. New technology, advanced markets and new ways of thinking will be required as we approach much higher levels, but we have a long way to go and time to prepare as we are nowhere near tapping out our resource.

There is no shortage of windy sites on the Prairies, and Alberta could easily quadruple the existing fleet. There is technically enough wind resource in Alberta for 100 times as much. Furthermore, new advances in technology have made wind energy among the lowest cost options for new electricity. So, it is surprising, then, that just as we are overcoming key milestones in the province, market forecasts for Alberta show it is poised to stagnate.

Wind energy gets a lower price for its electricity than all other sources of generation in the Alberta market. While this is good for consumers, perversely it means that new wind energy projects are increasingly difficult to build here, making them difficult to finance even though they cost less than a new coal plant.

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