Blowing in the wind energy

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Ahead of the Heard

One has to admire the business and political skills of windmill operators if their endless march across prominent ridges in southern Alberta is any indication. It seems every year more of these hideous invasive totems of dubious progress are forced out of the ground to despoil the once open vistas of our beautiful province.

To their credit, the powerful windmill industry lobby has successfully browbeaten any critics, and has governments at every level bowing at their feet. It seems politicians and bureaucrats can’t offer subsidies, tariff incentives, grants and zoning allowances fast enough to the windmill barons. Even the usually vociferous, self-righteous green lobby groups won’t touch this politically-correct monster – no matter the continuous deaths of thousands of innocent birds and bats, no matter the noise and visual pollution, and no matter the outrageous costs to taxpayers and consumers.

In the middle of all this there are folks who have the ability to ignore the politics and see economic opportunity. For example Lethbridge College has quietly but with determination created a world-class facility that trains students in the maintenance of windmills. It’s so successful that it has students from around the world. College officials are aware of the questions surrounding the economic viability of windmills but have the business smarts to grab hold of the goose that lays the golden egg. The same for economic development officials in the Lethbridge area, they see windmills as an opportunity to increase investment in research, servicing, supplies, manufacturing and construction.

One does wonder though what the windmill saturation point will be in southern Alberta. The size and scale of windmills just continues to get larger, I expect the time will come when enough is enough and residents will rebel. This is already beginning to occur in the UK and Europe where local groups are organizing to protest and stop any more windmill farm development. The “not in my back yard” movement is bound to grow. That’s caused windmill developers to expand into other areas where opposition is yet to develop and willing governments are still happy to supply subsidies and grants.

The new mecca for more windmill farms is in eastern Canada particularly Ontario where the provincial government has implemented an incentive program that will prove to be a gold mine for the windmill industry. It’s so lucrative that Ontario has already leaped ahead of Alberta in new windmill capacity being developed. This has caused the inevitable where developers have begun to exploit government programs rather than economic reality. That is now seeing windmill farms being built in areas where the available wind resources are borderline at best. There is a reason why southern Alberta is the original home of the windmill development and not Ontario – it’s because of the wind.

But trust governments to aggravate a bad economic situation with good intentions. Because of its green image, governments see wind energy as the solution to stopping emissions from traditional sources such as coal-burning electric plants. In their view all that is required is more windmill and solar energy farms, all that is needed is some incentives to attract developers. It’s always so easy when taxpayer dollars are involved. The result is that windmill’s biggest weakness will only get worse. Even under the best scenarios windmills only produce energy 30% of the time due to either no wind or curiously too much wind – and that’s in areas that are wind-prone. That average is bound to get worse in areas that have less wind and that’s what is beginning to develop as the wind energy industry chases subsidies and not economics.

The only bright light is that windmill research is seeing the development of smaller equipment that can be used to generate power on farms and ranches. However this creates problems for the electric grid which was never designed to absorb sudden and intermittent sources of power. That has now put governments in the position of having to find ways and means to expand the grid to service the wind energy industry, and you guessed it at taxpayer and consumer expense. That has resulted in the Alberta government using legislation to force the issue and that has resulted in a political backlash that is plaguing the present government – much to their chagrin. After all wasn’t wind energy supposed to lead to a happy green utopia. It seems the government is learning once again – what you sow you will have to reap.

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