Spin, Baby, Spin

The downsides of wind power.

By Sid Marty

Power outages are not rare here at the foot of the Livingstone Range north of the Crowsnest Pass, thanks to summer electrical storms, ice buildup in winter and west winds that can gust (where I live) beyond 170 km an hour. A major outage here means looking after ourselves beyond the usual stocking up with candles and flashlights. No power to run the furnace fan? No portable generator? No worries. Fire up the wood burner so the plumbing doesn’t freeze. No power for the well pump? Use a battery pump, hand pump or a bucket on a rope. Or melt some snow. Make coffee and strap it on.

We don’t take electricity for granted in the country; we have a longer memory of life before the light switch. But lately the ratepayers in MD 9 (as it’s known locally) have been discovering that two major actors in the planning and distribution of electricity in Alberta—the not-for-profit Alberta Electrical System Operator (AESO) and the for-big-profits transmission company AltaLink—have, in fact, been taking us local yokels (and all Albertans, really) very much for granted. 

When their engineers drive down from Calgary and look at the Porcupine/Pekisko rangelands lying north of Highway 3, in the vicinity of Lundbreck, they don’t see what we see: a sublime scenic commons belonging to all Albertans and shared with any stranger passing through. They don’t see how the lion-coloured foothills to the west foot the cloud-hung ramparts of the Livingstone Range like supplicants at the hall of the mountain king. The forests there, as I write this, are limned in the sharpest chiaroscuro from the night’s frost, left behind this morning by swirling mists that the sun is now burning off. 

Nor do they value, as they stand under the leading edge of a chinook arch, how the eastward sweep of aspen groves, hay meadows and rough-fescue-covered ridges that lie between the mountains and the timbered redoubts of the Porcupine Hills seem almost as they did in pioneer days. From here, you can’t see the gangs of elk, herds of deer, the furtive cougars, bobcats, wolves and sloths of black and grizzly bears that wander these buttes and ridges, or the thousands of bald and golden eagles and other raptors migrating along the crest of the Livingstone Range in spring and fall.

These vistas of ranchland and river valleys are the heart of Alberta sublime. They lassoed the imaginations of moviegoers who flocked to see Open Range and Brokeback Mountain. They draw people from abroad (part of a $5-billion tourism industry) to drink in this last, best west stretching from Longview to Waterton. Small wonder that Oldman chose the North Peak of the Porcupine Hills to create the first people from a ball of mud after the great flood. That storied height was once a nunatak that stood alone above the ice sheets covering the region. Jealous of this ancient buffalo range, Blackfoot raiders, led by Medicine Calf, attacked the first wagon train of crazy honkies to venture north, in 1867. Like sacrificial lambs, they watered this earth with their blood, and you can see the hill from here, known as Massacre Butte, where they made their final stand. Take a look quick, before somebody massacres our history with platoons of gigantic wind turbines and ranks of transmission lines.

Wind turbines, when properly planned and located, can indeed contribute to renewable power in Alberta. They offer a few construction and maintenance jobs and contribute to the local municipal tax base ($1.54-million in 2008). They seduce some property owners into leasing their “wind rights.” Amounts earned aren’t typically disclosed, but in 2007 a local expert told me that a 1.3 megawatt (MW) windmill such as the ones in MD 9 can generate $150,000–$200,000 a year for its operator and $4,000–$6,000 for the property owner.

Wind power is a small but growing part of the provincial electrical grid. According to Alberta Energy, Alberta now has 805 MW of wind power. That equals 6 per cent of our total installed capacity of 13,447 MW, up 2 per cent since 2007. AESO’s goal is to add as much wind power to the grid as is feasible. Some 11,000 MW is currently proposed, according to Shan Bhattacharya, vice president of transmission for AESO. About 7,400 MW of that is to be here in the south.

We’re treating a renewable resource in a boom-or-bust way, like fossil fuels. Can’t we even get green energy right?

Estimates about new generation vary, however, depending on who you listen to. For example, according to Alberta Energy, another 8,994 MW of thermal (or non-renewable) power is also proposed. This means the province would increase its total capacity to 30,796 MW, an amount that’s over double our current capacity. Meanwhile, peak demand—the most electricity we use at a given time—actually went down last year, from 10,236 MW in 2009 to 10,196 MW in 2010. Yet power brokers will tell you we risk having brownouts and blackouts if we don’t start producing more power (than we require) and revamp the grid. AESO’s mantra is we must build “in advance of need” and have a “congestion-free” grid to attract new industry. This includes the controversial new power line from Edmonton to Calgary, which is currently subject to a court challenge. Why we can’t wait until need has been demonstrated is never mentioned.

Power producers are happy, and no wonder. In the olden days, producers paid half the costs of new lines, but in 2005 the PC government decided that you and I should foot the entire bill. The cost to upgrade our transmission network was then pegged at $1.5-billion, but has ballooned to $16-billion. And swelling.

Although some consumers argue that upgrades are needed, I found no unified support for Alberta’s current grandiose plans. In a leaked letter sent to the PC caucus, the Industrial Power Consumers Association of Alberta (IPCAA) lambasted AESO’s proposed lines as “unnecessary,” “irresponsible,” “unaffordable” and “lacking common sense.” Instead of attracting investment, the plan, they claim, will drive industrial users out of Alberta or force them to generate their own power, leaving domestic users to pick up even more of the tab. Even the Fraser Institute, an industry cheerleader, is opposed. 

Alberta Energy spins a fairytale predicting $24–$36 more for the average annual household bill. Meanwhile, the actual costs of AESO’s projects in real life doubled in just 12 months. The IPCAA warns that in a worst-case scenario, homeowners will pay $400 more per year. An estimate from ENMAX Corp., the Calgary utility, pegs the annual increase at $300.

Here’s the kicker: when all the upgrades are done—at citizens’ expense—we’ll get to compete with US consumers for the power we produce. Alberta Energy insists the new lines will be for our needs only, while AESO says it’s “inaccurate” to say the new lines are for export. AESO claims we have to import electricity because we simply don’t produce enough. In fact, we import less than 6 per cent of our electricity, mainly from BC when cheap hydro is available. BC also buys power from us to stay running while they refill their hydro reservoirs. No power for export? Tell it to Encana Corp., which applied to the National Energy Board this February to export 5,000,000 MWh to the US over the next 10 years. What the hell is going on here?

Albertans will pay $16-billion for new power lines--"a massive overbuild"--for the benefit of private companies and US consumers.

Albertans will pay $16-billion for new power lines—”a massive overbuild”—for the benefit of private companies and US consumers. 

It’s quite simple, really. California needs 40,000 MW of new power by 2016, and by law, 20 per cent of it must be renewable (read: wind) by 2015. They need to be 33 per cent renewable by 2020. And they expect Canada to supply a lot of it. Go online to find “Canada–Northwest–California Transmission Options Study,” prepared for the Northwest Power Pool by a joint US/Canadian team, including two representatives from AESO. The study was done “…because there are vast undeveloped generation resources in Canada… that would require capacity increases in the transmission system to deliver energy to west coast load centres.” You’ll find maps showing our generator sources, including syngas projects in the tarsands, the coal plant at Wabamun and wind power down south. Transmission routes are shown leading south from Lethbridge, and west via the Crowsnest, then into Washington and on to California. The options are very specific. Projects must be available within 15 years, technically doable and already under consideration and, most importantly, not needed for meeting domestic load. 

Alberta Energy and AESO: when telling tall tales, remember the old proverb that “Enough is enough, but too much is plenty.”

Like Alberta Energy, Canada’s windpower industry gives good quote, in this case on all of its “clean” aspects. I suspect, however, that some of this greenwashing has more to do with greenbacks. Dawn Farrell, a TransAlta vice president, put the issue in perspective for investors a few years back: “What we love about wind is that from a decision to cash is a very short period of time.” Indeed, the industry is as aggressive at getting its way as any oil company.

The trend was established in 1993, when the first commercial windfarm in Canada was set up on Cowley Ridge—probably the worst possible location from a “viewshed” protection perspective. It dominates the ridge-to-mountain tableau by skylining a row of 23 pairs of revolving spikes on lattice towers, permanently vandalizing the view. At a more typical, newer site, the hub heights from ground vary from 65 m to 105 m, with blade swaths of 90 m. This might give an engineer a frisson of joy, but anyone who worries about homelier issues, such as the decline of the little brown bat in southwest Alberta (their lungs burst at wind power sites when they fly through a rotor arc), or anyone who loves our open spaces and knows what effect linear disturbances such as power lines and access roads have on plants, animals and water quality, will wilt in despair. 

In 2007, with many larger turbines built and applications increasing, our local council tried to impose conditions on windfarm siting to protect land values. The wind industry mounted an attack, led by none other than Ralph Klein, then on the board of Canadian Hydro, to pressure council into backing off. This was particularly galling given the hostility to wind power (which I witnessed) from the PC government and its petroclients prior to 1993, when Klein was Minister of Environment. There are now 239 windmills in MD 9 alone, with 47 more under construction and 145 more approved. 

New windfarms mean new power lines, and more money for AltaLink and its parent company, Montreal-based SNC-Lavalin. One of AESO’s and AltaLink’s current obsessions is Southern Alberta Transmission Reinforcement (SATR), a project designed to carry windpower to market. The community is polarized between those who want unrestricted development and those, led by the Livingstone Landowners Group (LLG), who want a say in how lines are planned and located. (The LLG is a not-for-profit association of ranchers and country dwellers with a conservationist land ethic. I’m a former director, but the thoughts expressed here, especially about windpower, are my own and aren’t endorsed by the group.) 

At a meeting with the LLG, an AltaLink engineer once described his role in transmission route selection as “a stick” that goes about probing the ground for hornet’s nests. In 2008, a tentative probe came by way of a curious map in the Pincher Creek Echo. It outlined, vaguely, a proposed power line south of Highway 3, connecting Goose Lake substation and the Crowsnest Pass, where it would connect with the Langdon-to-Natal, BC, line. The proposed line appeared to follow an existing power right-of-way. That seemed reasonable given AltaLink’s 2007 land-use policy as stated by CEO Scott Thon: “We must be more efficient in how we use the land by reusing rights-of-way and maximizing the capacity of new infrastructure.”

The curious map, I later learned, was published after AESO had made a “needs” case for its line before the Alberta Utility Commission (AUC) in November 2008. Wind power developers attended the hearing to support AESO. But ENMAX intervened to oppose the project, arguing that “approval… was not in the public interest because it: circumvented the regulatory process by seeking approval for too many projects for too long a period, well in advance of provable need, thereby saddling consumers with a huge stranded asset risk; significantly increased consumer transmission costs by requiring a large capital investment in transmission…; and did not support a fair, efficient and openly competitive electricity market in Alberta.” Ouch.

ENMAX’s “white knight” objection was examined and dismissed. AESO’s preferred route, known as “1A” (the route shown in the Echo), was approved. AltaLink was “strongly advised” by the AUC to stay within the swath. A substation in the Crowsnest that had long been an impediment to moving wind power was okayed for improved as well, so that, in a year or so, wind developers would be able to move their power west without hindrance. California, here we come. Can you say ohm?

Encana has applied to export more power to the US over the next ten years. What the hell is going on here?

Things were humming along, with AltaLink planning for new lines while the “hornets”—we citizens of MD 9—were blissfully unaware. Flash forward to the fall of 2010, when AltaLink decided to kick the hornet’s nest apart. AltaLink is supposed to consult with landowners before final routes are selected. One day, a map and a brochure arrived in the mailbox—well, in some mailboxes—and Route 1A had vanished. Instead, the map showed a brand new substation called “Fidler” on the Oldman River reservoir and a gridwork of 240 kV transmission lines bisecting and transecting the rangelands north of Highway 3, including two swaths cutting across the Porcupine Hills. The lines were to tie in to Langdon–Natal via one of three substations (all called Chapel Rock for some reason) lying west of Highway 22. AESO’s 2008 “needs application” hadn’t mentioned either Fidler or Chapel Rock, or any lines north of Highway 3.

The map infuriated locals. Some of us are still deeply suspicious of AESO and AltaLink as a result of the 2007 scandal at Rimbey, in which private investigators were hired by the Energy Utilities Board to spy on members of the Lavesta group, who opposed the Calgary/Edmonton power lines planned by AltaLink. That scandal resulted in the project’s (temporary) cancellation. (The EUB was dismantled as a result and the AUC rose from its ashes.)

“Don’t kid yourself,” was the buzz among local ranchers. “They already know which route they’ll take.” AltaLink soon flooded the area with open houses manned by blue-vested employees spreading the good news among the unconverted. They seemed genuinely bewildered that local people distrusted their motives. “We’re only here to keep the lights on,” one young fellow put it.

A number of LLG members had received no maps or communication whatsoever from AESO or AltaLink, even though the new proposed lines were shown traversing their property—in some cases right over barns and houses. Residents were worried about property devaluation, fragmentation of wildlife habitat, watershed protection, health issues due to magnetic fields, the destruction of scenery and the general blunt-force approach to planning displayed by the utility.

The question foremost on most minds: “What happened to the line they were approved to build? Who gave them approval for this?” The simple answer is that AESO gave itself approval, despite the AUC’s “advising” them to stay in the existing right-of-way. Some arrogant technocrat, with the click of a mouse, decided that the route to Chapel Rock is exactly the same as the route to Crowsnest—though a major river and 40 km of countryside and a number of landowners separate the proposals.

Incensed at being reduced to a pesky afterthought, the LLG began fundraising to ready itself for a legal fight with AESO and AltaLink that could involve challenging the need for the entire project. Last October, the AUC warned AESO it was setting itself up for a fight in the courts. AESO’s reaction was basically “So what?”—an applicant at court flipping the bird at the judge. As I write this, LLG is sitting down with AltaLink to see if an alternative route can be found. The group is also urging the company to bury some of the line—a request made by landowners up and down the Calgary/Edmonton corridor as well—to lessen landscape impacts.

According to the AESO, “Wind resources in southern Alberta are a current example of where investment has been stalled as a result of a lack of transmission infrastructure.” This statement, constantly repeated, is notable for what it does not reveal.

The trouble with bulk electricity, in the absence of hydro, is our inability to store it. The power supplied to the grid must be in balance with the power withdrawn at all times. Wind farms cause variability when wind speed changes and power ramps up or down too quickly. Wind energy has to be backed up by generation that can cut in fast, and in Alberta that means, in particular, gas-fired generators (at least when hydro isn’t available). These have to be kept running, and therefore emitting CO2, so the operator can dispatch power when the wind drops.

But windmills have a huge footprint more broadly speaking. They have to be spaced so that turbulence in the lee of one machine doesn’t unbalance the next one. Twelve 3 MW windmills producing 36 MW may require from 250 acres (if sited in a single row on a ridge) to one square mile if sited in rows of four in other terrain. By comparison, ENMAX’s Shepard combined-cycle plant in Calgary will, when opened in 2013, produce 800 MW and supply half of Calgary on a footprint of 80 (urban) acres. ENMAX claims the plant will produce half the CO2 per MW of a conventional coal-powered plant. If the wind blew all the time, you might require from 9 to 22 square miles of windmills to produce 800 MW—but since it blows only 25 per cent to 38 per cent of the time, you’d need far more land, and you’d produce a lot of CO2 to back them up.

In 2005, imbalances in the grid caused AESO to order a 900 MW cap on wind energy construction. The cap was lifted only after ENMAX completed a new 1,200 MW gas-fired plant near Calgary. The company told the Financial Post (April 20, 2007) that the plant would “help boost the provincial grid’s reliability after Alberta’s aggressive expansion into wind energy made it vulnerable to power disruption.” “We now have so much wind power generation that we need to fall back on reliable sources of power,” said Peter Hunt, an ENMAX spokesman. 

So if unrestrained development of massive windfarms isn’t the solution to clean energy, what is? Well it turns out that, gee, what a surprise, there are many solutions. Carefully sited, widely dispersed windfarms that don’t destroy our natural heritage are winners. Even better, building generators closer to power consumers is advocated by everyone from environmentalists to the Fraser Institute to ENMAX. Let’s go back to the roots of windpower, where each farm would have one turbine (and could sell its surplus power to the grid—what happened to that happy, green dream?). Combined-cycle generation (reusing waste heat) and landfill methane plants are part of the answer, as is cogeneration at pulp mills and other facilities. Solar and run-of-river hydro are part of the package. Research on gasification of coal (in which China now leads the pack) is a key component for some authorities. And most of all, we have to commit, each of us, to conserving electricity—because that’s always going to be the cheapest form of energy we can create.

Fortis Alberta is our electricity distributor. When we lose power here in rural southern Alberta, the company responds as quickly as it can, and the lineman who comes out to troubleshoot problems is also a member of our MD of Pincher Creek council. So I can heckle him about new subdivision plans while he resets the breaker on our power pole.

But when it comes to Alberta’s plan to bring more wind power online, I’m left with more questions than answers. It saddens me to think that in this province we can’t even get green energy right. We’re treating a renewable resource in a boom-or-bust way, the way we do fossil fuels. It’s obvious to me that the owners of “wind rights” (who granted these, by the way?), if not regulated, will continue to industrialize southwestern Alberta, without public awareness let alone consent, and proudly create the Fort McMurray of wind farms. How generous of Alberta to destroy its sublime landscape so California can have “green” energy.

As for the transmission lines, wiser people than yours truly have made it clear that we don’t need this massive overbuild. As a society, we need to speak out and stop this folly. For starters, here’s an outrageous suggestion for all you red-blooded power entrepreneurs: why don’t you pay for those lines yourselves, bill the cost to California and leave us out of it? I suspect that if these companies were footing the bill, they’d examine the costs—and the need for the lines—a hell of a lot more carefully. And AltaLink, a.k.a. SNC-Lavalin: if you must build them, at least bury the damn things in the ground in sensitive areas, cleverly putting an end to wind and ice storm damage and 64 m high towers, and reducing your maintenance costs while preventing bird strikes and putting health fears to rest. Frontier days are over; it’s 2011, not 1911. Time to show some basic respect for rural Albertans, and for the land we love and cherish. 

Sid Marty has published five books of non-fiction and three of poetry, mostly on natural history. He and his wife live near Pincher Creek.


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