Hot Air on Wind Power

Worth A Look, Energy, Frontier Centre

Up in our rural neck of the woods, where very little happens, everyone is in a tizzy. The wind companies have arrived. Suddenly, there are giant wind farms sprouting 30-storey turbines on our horizon. The wind company salesmen are knocking on doors trying to sign up the local landowners. They put a turbine in your field, and you get $7,000 a year for letting your wind blow through it. Sure beats growing potatoes.

But not everyone is happy. The problem is, wind turbines do not enhance the rural landscape. They are, for starters, massive pieces of industrial equipment. They have bright blinking lights on top. Worse, they have to be hooked up to giant transmission lines in order to move the power from A to B. People in the country like to look at cows, not hydro corridors.

So now we are conflicted. We think wind power is a good thing. Who doesn’t? It’s clean! It’s green! It’s 100-per-cent renewable, and has no nasty side effects or unwanted radioactive waste. We’re not NIMBY-types, honest. We’re just not sure we want those big things in our yards.

Wind power is coming to Ontario because our government is hell-bent on going green. The Premier and the Energy Minister have even obtained the blessing of St. David Suzuki, who is scheduled to appear today for a big announcement on renewable energy and a photo op. The politicians are hoping voters will remember this at election time. They don’t have a clue how they’ll keep the lights on in five or six years, but they want to assure us that their hearts are in the right place.

To get the lowdown on wind, I called my friend Tom Adams at Energy Probe. “It’s a good idea,” the self-confessed energy geek says about wind power. “I’m all for it. But it’s hard to make it work.”

The biggest problem with wind power isn’t the aesthetics. It’s the economics. Wind power is expensive. It’s highly subsidized. It requires large investments in transmission lines. And it isn’t very reliable. That’s because you can’t count on wind to blow. So, if you want to keep the lights on, you’d better have lots of standby power on hand. “Wind is the worst of all major sources of power supply in terms of short-term predictability,” says Mr. Adams.

Wind power’s track record isn’t pretty. Germany, with more than 15,000 turbines, has one of the biggest commitments to wind energy in the world. But the government’s own energy agency has concluded that wind farms are an expensive and inefficient way of generating sustainable energy. How inefficient? According to Mr. Adams, wind power doesn’t start making economic sense until you can get the system operating at 30 per cent of capacity. Last year, the German system ran at 19 per cent; Ontario’s wind system ran at less than that. “That means customers are going to get nailed, investors will go bankrupt, and the landscape will be littered with rusting hulks,” says Mr. Adams.

In Britain, where the government is spending billions to subsidize wind power, some of the biggest critics are prominent environmentalists. They, too, argue that wind power is inefficient, destroys the countryside, and does nothing to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. “It is a scandalous waste of taxpayers’ money,” says Angela Kelly, head of the anti-wind-power coalition.

Wind power might make sense one day. But not yet. Meantime, Ontario’s consumers are paying 8.6 cents a kilowatt hour for wind power, not counting the various hidden subsidies to the industry that are impossible to calculate. The average consumer price for electricity is currently 5.4 cents. Ontario’s cleanest coal plants — which, thanks to advanced technology, are very clean, indeed — make power for 4 cents. If we built new coal plants, the cost would be 6 cents.

But that won’t happen, because coal’s a dirty word. Even though modern coal is environmentally virtuous, reliable and cheap, our Premier has promised to get rid of it. Coal does not make voters feel good. Wind makes them feel good.

If only we could figure out how to get energy from hot air. Then we’d have all the power we need, forever.