Renewable energy remains an elusive target

Wind power advocates find progress difficult as opposition mobilizes


By D’Arcy Jenish – Business Edge

Published: 11/14/2008 – Vol. 8, No. 23
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Since the start of the decade, Canada has been exporting more oil to the United States than Saudi Arabia and this country’s exports now account for almost one-fifth of the foreign petroleum consumed in the U.S.

But, as any environmentalist will tell you, we pay a steep price ecologically by mining Alberta’s bitumen – that gooey, black stuff that contains both oil and sand.

A new book on the subject, Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of the Continent by Alberta author Andrew Nikiforuk, is enough to scare just about anyone except a downtown Calgary oil executive.

According to Nikiforuk, the industry must excavate two tons of earth and sand just to make a barrel of bitumen. It takes three barrels of water, mostly in the form of steam required to separate sand and oil, to produce one barrel of petroleum.

The industry also burns enormous quantities of natural gas – enough to heat four million homes daily, says Nikiforuk, the result being that a barrel of bitumen generates three times as many greenhouse gases as a conventional barrel of oil.

Given such costs, it is no wonder that so many left-leaning and eco-friendly politicians – everyone from Elizabeth May and Jack Layton, to Stephane Dion and U.S. president-elect Barack Obama – would like to wean us from our dependence on petroleum.

They would have us believe that we could reduce our consumption of hydrocarbons power if only we were prepared to think outside the box and make the right investments in clean and renewable wind, solar and water power.

Unfortunately, there is a too-good-to-be-true tone to these politically inspired narratives and the cheerleading from the environmentalists. The Ottawa-based Canadian Wind Energy Association (CWEA) estimates that wind could potentially generate 20 per cent of the country’s electricity demand.

Currently, according to the CWEA, there are 83 wind farms and 1,410 turbines operating in Canada. They have the capacity to produce 1,876 megawatts, enough to supply 569,000 homes, or 0.8 per cent of our energy requirements.

That means we would need tens of thousands of turbines to generate 20 per cent of our needs and the question is: Where on earth would we put them? The Ontario wind energy industry, as small as it is, is already encountering resistance from rural and urban residents who don’t want turbines anywhere near their backyards.

Currently, there are seven full-fledged wind farms in the province and six wind projects, mostly single turbines installed to test the potential of producing power in certain locales. Toronto Hydro, the municipally owned utility that generates or purchases electricity to meet the city’s needs, is contemplating a two-year test of the wind potential off the Scarborough Bluffs and extending east to the suburbs of Pickering and Ajax.

The utility plans to install an anemometer, a device that measures the strength and consistency of the winds blowing off Lake Ontario. If the results are positive, Toronto Hydro could create a wind farm consisting of 40 to 60 wind turbines erected about two kilometres offshore on a shelf beneath the surface of the lake.

Already, local residents are organizing against the idea. Nearly 500 showed up recently for a public information session, but Toronto Hydro had to reschedule the event because it had booked a community hall with a capacity for 200.

Naturally, many of these people endorse clean, renewable forms of alternate energy. They just don’t want enormous wind turbines ruining the view when they are out for a weekend walk along the Scarborough Bluffs.

Resistance to wind farms is also growing in rural Ontario. Wind Concerns Ontario says it’s a coalition of 24 local organizations formed, according to its website, to create “a strong, unified voice of opposition to the unchecked rush to locate over 640 massive industrial wind turbines across the province in the last five years.”

Such grassroots opposition can be effective. In mid-October, Edmonton-based Epcor Utilities Inc. cancelled plans to build a $300-million, 160-megawatt wind farm near the town of Goderich, Ont., on Lake Huron after it failed to obtain all the necessary provincial and municipal approvals, partly due to vocal protests from local landowners.

The wind may be “an infinite source of clean power,” as the Canadian Wind Energy Association puts it. For now though, it is an industry in its infancy, like most forms of renewable energy, and there are significant barriers to growth that must be overcome if we are ever to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels.

(D’Arcy Jenish can be reached at jenish@businessedge.ca)

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