Wind power in BC: a niche market no longer
By Tom Malcolm
October 15, 2012
Whether it’s the massive quantity of hydroelectric power on the surface, or the more recent discovery of huge deposits of natural gas deep within the ground, BC does not lack for energy. What’s not often talked about is BC’s massive wind energy potential. With roughly 250 MW of capacity installed as of 2011, it falls behind Ontario (1970 MW), Quebec (918), Alberta (890), Nova Scotia (285), and New Brunswick (294), ranking 6th in Canada.
However, according to the Canadian Wind Energy Association (CanWEA), BC is ripe for wind development; 5,250 MW could realistically be installed by 2025, according to CanWEA’s report Wind Vision 2025; A Strategy for British Columbia. But perhaps more interesting than the volume of potential wind capacity is the relatively inexpensive cost at which much of this could be developed.
The wind energy industry is not seeking massive subsidies or a feed-in-tariff (a la Ontario) to provide developers certainty in their future revenue streams. Rather, CanWEA is convinced it can compete strictly on the merits of improved turbine efficiency and a reduction in the cost to manufacture, install, and operate turbines. According to Nicholas Heap, BC Regional Director for CanWEA, energy generated from proposed wind farms will cost $94/MWh as compared to the $87-95/MWh for the proposed Site C Hydroelectric project.
The biggest question surrounding cost is not whether wind can compete with proposed hydroelectric projects, but rather whether it can compete with natural gas, which typically falls in the $69-90/MWh range. Recently in North America, with the introduction of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) to exploit rich gas deposits deep in the ground, there has been a glut of supply to the market. This has driven the price of the “clean gas” (as recently defined by the BC Government) to record lows, creating fierce competition with other energy alternatives.
However, across the Pacific Ocean, the price of natural gas is significantly higher, leading the private sector and governments to salivate at the prospect of exploiting this abundant fossil fuel. If natural gas is sold to Asian markets, North American prices could increase significantly. The amount of natural gas brought up from the ground and the price it ultimately gets sold for will go a long way in determining the cost-competitiveness of wind. This uncertainty is a wind farm developer’s greatest foe.
Natural gas impacts aside, BC’s climate and seasonal cycles allow for wind energy production to be a perfect complement to existing and future hydroelectric power. Given that the wind doesn’t blow all the time, it can never be relied on 100%, so a backup power source is needed. Water reservoirs offer the ideal, clean, and reliable backup to wind.
Furthermore, in winter, when heating and lighting loads are greatest, BC gets its strongest winds. This happens to be the same time of year when stream-flows (and thus hydro power output) are at their weakest. BC’s wind and hydro generation potential are a perfect marriage of energy sources.
Despite the tremendous potential outlined by CanWEA, BC Hydro and the government of British of Columbia have no immediate plans to make wind power a bigger part of its energy portfolio (which currently represents 1% of energy output). So what is the future for wind in British Columbia? The answer to that question will be answered by voters, governments and private developers as the dust settles with natural gas and other energy projects. Wind has the potential to reduce our emissions at the same time as making our industries a lot of money. Who will be the first to take advantage of these opportunities?
(Icon photo courtesy of Rodolfo Novak/Flickr)