|CREDIT: Reuters File Photo
|More power is used in summer,
when winds are weakest.
After 19 months of commercial wind power operating experience in
Ontario, there is some good news. Our wind farms produce almost up to
target levels. The companies delivering wind power are mostly
established energy firms. All are installing state of the art
technology. Wind-farm operators in Ontario are subject to stricter
technical controls than in Germany where, last November, wind power
contributed to a continental grid blackout.
For all its strengths, we now have enough information to conclude
that wind power in Ontario is a disaster for consumers.
Ontario's large wind farms completing one year of service
generated on average 29% of what they could have under ideal
conditions. The world's best perform 50% better.
Moreover, the little output our wind turbines do generate comes in
wild swings from high production to dead calm. Compared to all
available generation technologies, wind power is uniquely intermittent.
Over one-hour intervals, production changes for individual wind farms
are as great as 73%, and 39% for the overall fleet. Over five-minute
intervals, changes of 13% for individual farms have been measured.
Intermittency creates a major challenge for grid reliability,
which requires instantaneous balancing of overall power generation to
exactly match consumption. Combining nuclear generators, which have
almost no ability to increase or decrease output, with intermittent
wind power is particularly problematic. Balancing nuclear and wind
power while keeping the lights on requires other, typically costly,
generators to quickly ramp up, down or stand by. With one of the most
nuclear-dependent grids in the world, Ontario is poorly suited to host
Predicting wind output changes has proven difficult, but one
pattern is clear:Winds tend to be calm when consumers need electricity
most. Ontarians use the most electricity in summer -- the weakest
season for wind. In July and August of 2006 and 2007, Ontario was
frequently becalmed and average monthly output fell within the lowly
13% to 19% range. Although winter is the strongest season, on the
coldest days, when we use most power, wind output tends to be poorest.
Over the typical day, wind output peaks around midnight and bottoms out
around 8 a.m., contrary to our daily consumption pattern.
Diversifying the geographic location of wind farms has provided
little output stability because, even when widely dispersed, output
from individual farms tends to rise and fall in sync. Although limited
data is available, the production pattern of New York's largest wind
farm appears to closely match the hourly output of Ontario's overall
wind production. New York's farm even matches fairly closely the output
of a similar farm at Sault St. Marie, 840 kilometres away.
Connecting wind power to the grid is also costly. The first of
many high-voltage transmission investments mainly directed at wind is
currently pegged at $635-million. Connecting large wind generators to
low-voltage distribution networks will require costly re-engineering.
Whether high voltage or low, grid connections must be vastly oversized
relative to average wind output to support infrequent bursts of full
The McGuinty government is currently buying wind power for 11¢ per
kilowatt hour -- about double the current price homeowners pay for
reliable, available-on-demand power. A little competition would
mitigate this. Before the wind industry convinced the McGuinty
government to adopt sole-sourcing for wind power as it was done for
nuclear and some gas generators, competitive auctions in 2004 to supply
wind power revealed a price of 8¢ per kilowatt hour and 8.6¢ in 2005.
Modern smog-free coal generators, like those operating now in
Alberta, the United States, Europe and Japan, are the reliable, secure
and affordable alternative. If real market competition existed, only a
heavy carbon tax would prevent coal from blowing wind power away.
Wind power's lack of overall value has not prevented our
politicians from embracing it. Mr. McGuinty's group has decreed that,
by the end of 2010, wind capacity will triple and then almost triple
again by 2025. By 2027, the government says wind will supply 12% of the
province's power generation. McGuinty's rivals all complain that this
is just not enough.
But getting 12% of our power from a costly, unreliable and so far
unpredictable source is trouble consumers don't need. If we bet heavily
on wind, will the rest of our power system keep the lights on during
the summer doldrums?
Possible solutions to overcome wind power's deficiencies range
from conceivable to sci-fi: finding much windier places near the
existing grid, developing cheap short-term storage options to buffer
wind output, centralized instantaneous controls for consumer power
usage, perhaps tethering airborne wind turbines to capture
high-altitude winds, or even tapping artificial and controlled
Without radical technological advances, wind power will only
burden Ontario consumers. - Tom Adams is an independent energy advisor
and Francois Cadieux is an engineering science student at the
University of Toronto.