A chill wind from across the water

Neighbours? What neighbours?

A new US consortium. A year-old Canadian moratorium. On the Great Lakes, the wind is blowing in a completely different direction depending on which side of the border you find yourself. The US has the right idea. Canada does not.

What’s so special about offshore wind energy?

The first answer will be obvious to anyone that has worked offshore – principally oil and gas production facilities, or (as in my case) construction of the same. It’s a dangerous, alien, unforgiving environment. Blowing wind and crashing waves exert astounding forces on artificial structures. Ice, be it in the form of sheet ice, icebergs, or just build-up of ice on exposed surfaces, can make short work of insufficiently stouthearted designs. Salt water in particular is extremely harsh; there is an entire science dealing with protecting pipelines, pilings, and other (usually) steel construction elements from corrosion. So offshore wind energy facilities have to be much more robust – and are hence much more expensive – than their onshore brethren.

The second answer will be obvious to any sailor, especially the kind of sailor that worries about whether to hoist a sail or keep it furled. On open water, the wind blows with much more strength and with much more consistency than it does across land. Humans have taken full advantage of this fact for thousands of years, harnessing wind power to propel their vessels across lakes, seas, and oceans. If you’re in the business of converting wind power to electricity, offshore you’ll find a much higher capacity factor – meaning the amount of output that a given wind energy installation actually produces compared to what it is theoretically capable of producing.

The third answer will be obvious to anyone – there aren’t any people around. Onshore wind farms have evoked considerable controversy, as I discussed in my March 22nd post, Tilting at windmills. Most objections have come from people who don’t like the idea of having wind turbines located close to their homes. Needless to say, this is not an issue when the nearest homes are scarcely if at all visible across an expanse of open water. When you go far enough from land, even the birds become rare – if you can’t nest, if you can’t even land, you can’t live.

So although it costs more to get in the game, you can produce more power offshore, and you don’t have to worry about disturbing the neighbours. If the particular offshore location you’re considering is the Great Lakes, you have the added bonus that the environment is kinder and gentler than, say, the North Sea – fresh water rather than salt, meaning less corrosion; much more modest winds and waves; and a far less significant threat from ice. All without producing the greenhouse gases or radioactive waste that go with other key power generation technologies. What’s not to like?

Europeans have voted with their collective pocketbook. The European Wind Energy Association reported that at the end of 2011, there were a total of 1,371 offshore wind turbines in production spanning ten European countries, with a total generation capacity of 3,813 MW. That was up from 1,136 turbines in production one year prior. Those 235 new turbines represent an investment of €2.4 billion (US$3.1 billion).

The US has caught the offshore wind bug. On March 30th, President Barack Obama announced the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding between five US states and several US federal government agencies, intended to encourage the development of more offshore wind energy projects on the Great Lakes. Proponents of the initiative expect that it will create jobs and increase energy security.

Ontario has the most ambitious green energy initiative out of all the Canadian provinces, promoting expansion of wind, solar, and biomass energy generation capacity through a Feed-In Tariff (FIT) program. In spite of that, in February of 2011 the Ontario government placed a moratorium on offshore wind development in the province. Since Ontario is the only province with any of the Great Lakes within its territory, its moratorium effectively freezes any offshore wind energy on fresh water in the entire country.

What is up with that?

There are two reasons – the first being the reason which the Ontario government presented to the public, and the second being the real reason. The reason then-Energy Minister Brad Duguid offered is that not enough is known about the effects on human health of wind turbines in fresh water. That, of course, is silly – you would do as well to fret over the effect of emperor penguins on human health, because they are as likely to come in contact with people as offshore wind turbines.

The real reason is as both a sop and a goad to the anti-wind lobby, principally Wind Concerns Ontario. The sop: Folks, we hear your concerns, so we’ll stop one aspect of wind energy development. The goad: There’s no reliable science behind any of the WCO concerns, but we acknowledge that there is a gap in our scientific understanding of offshore wind turbines standing in fresh water, so we’ll sit tight until that science is clear.

Apparently the Ontario government has no sense of urgency to get the question answered so that the moratorium might be lifted (or, indeed, made permanent). There was no follow-on announcement of a research program to assess the health impacts of wind turbines located offshore in fresh water bodies. No rush, right?

But now the pressure is on. The Americans have taken up the challenge of offshore wind energy development on the Great Lakes. They apparently do not share the Ontario government’s concerns about health impacts. They have a broad-based coalition with both state and federal support. Ontario will never have anything remotely similar as long as the current fossil-fuel-fixated federal Conservative government remains in power.

Ontario needs to reverse its stance on offshore wind, commissioning health studies if necessary, and then getting on with the job. Canada has within its grasp the opportunity to be the first to innovate with a promising new technology, to build a new industry, to create jobs, and to establish itself as a world leader. If nothing changes, Canada will be handing this opportunity to the United States on a silver platter, and it will be the Avro Arrow debacle all over again.

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