Tech advances aid wind energy

By Schnarr, J.W. on February 8, 2016.


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Alberta’s plans for wind energy are a sign the province is becoming part of a larger global movement toward renewables, says the president of Canada’s wind energy association.

“Wind is now very much a mainstream power generation technology,” said Robert Hornung, president of Canadian Wind Energy Association.

“Today, wind energy is competitive with any form of electricity generation with the potential exception of natural gas,” he added. “And that’s only if you consider no carbon pricing or if you don’t think the price of natural gas will go up in the next 25 years.

“Alberta is not doing something that no one else has done. They’re following what we’re really seeing as a global trend.”

Hornung cited complaints that wind energy is problematic due to the variable nature of generation. A recent article in The Herald spoke about how new wind projects would have to be backed up with wasteful backup energy projects. Hornung said that is not the case.

“There’s a common misperception that when you build a variable generation source, like wind, then you need something to match it one-to-one,” he said.

Hornung said current systems already in place also have functioning backups built in.

“In Alberta today, if a coal plant shuts down tomorrow, you still need to provide power,” he said. “So there are backup reserves to allow that.

“Those backup reserves can also be used to manage the variability of sources like wind.”

Hornung said although wind does ultimately need to be partnered with another energy source, the amount of pairing needed is much less than commonly assumed.

He said any energy source being partnered with wind should be flexible, and easy to ramp up and down based on need. And while natural gas inside Alberta would certainly work, projects outside of Alberta have seen pairings with hydro electric energy and development of storage technology, allowing the wind energy to essentially back up itself.

“There’s a range of different solutions,” he said. “But in Alberta, it’s going to make sense that natural gas plays an important role in that.”

Hornung said while turbine design has not changed in years, the costs associated with generating electricity have fallen significantly.

“In the United States, it has been estimated the cost from wind has fallen 61 per cent in the past six years.”

One of the reasons for this reduction in cost is wind turbines are taller than they were in the past, allowing for longer fan blades. Another is the material used by designers has improved, making the turbines stronger and more efficient

Other types of advances being seen in the industry include lightweighting the turbines and improved data management for integration and adaptation.

A common issue for people opposing wind energy involve the perceived damage to local wildlife, as birds and bats can sometimes be killed by turbines.

Hornung said it is an issue the industry takes seriously, and one they are working toward minimizing. However, he said critics often miss the context of animal deaths when compared to other risks.

“Are there bird deaths around wind turbines?” he asked. “Absolutely. Per turbine, it’s going to be (four to six) bird deaths per year.”

He noted when compared to other dangers for birds, such as skyscrapers, transmission towers and even house cats, turbines represent a very small danger to the creatures. And the largest danger to birds is something wind energy is designed to combat.

“The largest single threat to birds today is climate change,” said Hornung. “You can certainly argue that wind can help in terms of helping address that challenge.”

He said a larger challenge exists protecting bat populations, as there is less known about their behaviour. Hornung said those involved in wind energy have been heavily involved with scientists who study bats, and work is ongoing.

“It certainly would be incorrect to say there are no impacts,” he said. “But it’s important to put those into context and it’s important to the industry to do as much as they can to mitigate those impacts.

Finally, Hornung addressed the myth that wind turbines cause health issues. He said the concensus among scientists is there are no links between wind turbines and human health.

“Actually, the most comprehensive study was done by Health Canada last year,” he said. “The one thing they did find was that wind turbines can cause annoyance.”

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