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WINDS OF CHANGE

Why in the world would a perfectly respectable, conservative, investor-owned power company like TransAlta invest in wind power?

In a recent Financial Post editorial, Fazil Mihlar argued that "wind power's advantages are far outweighed by its many disadvantages" and posed the question: Does wind power "make economic and environmental sense?"

The short answer to his question is "yes," and I'll explain by dispelling some myths about the supposed disadvantages of wind power.

Myth 1: To produce the same amount of wind energy as a 300-megawatt (MW) gas-fired power plant would require "1,200 wind turbines encompassing a land area of about 75,000 square kilometres."

Fact: A 300-MW wind farm would require 197 wind turbines on only six acres of land spread over 120 square kilometres. The new 75-MW McBride Lake wind farm, announced by Vision Quest and Enmax last week, will have 114 wind turbines using less land in aggregate than half the area of a CFL football field.

Myth 2: Wind power has a "devastating impact on bird populations."

Fact: Neighbourhood house cats and high-rise windows are more of a threat to birds than wind turbines. In a scientific literature review for the Toronto Renewable Energy Co-op (who are putting up a 750-kilowatt turbine at the CNE grounds), Royal Ontario Museum ornithologist Ross James said, "Every structure put up is likely to kill some birds ... every average house, directly or indirectly, is killing more birds per year than any average wind turbine. In fact, the average house is probably killing far more birds."

Myth 3: Wind energy "creates quite a bit of noise pollution and is an eyesore."

Fact: At 40 decibels, the sound level of wind turbines measured outside homes near Canadian wind farms is about the same as your library's reading room.

As for wind turbines being an eyesore, I suppose that is a matter of personal taste. For me, the sight of Vision Quest's Vestas wind turbines set against the backdrop of the Canadian Rockies is really quite magnificent.

Myth 4: Supporters and detractors of renewable energy alike are under the misconception that wind energy is designed to replace conventional power generation. I think this is the most pervasive myth about renewable energy in general and wind power in particular.

Fact: Wind energy cannot and will not, replace conventional power generation. Wind power will effectively -- and profitably -- complement conventional forms of power generation.

Because wind turbines only generate electricity when the wind blows, some argue they are inefficient and unreliable. That would be true if they were designed to be base load generation (conventional power plants that run all the time). They are not.

Wind power fits a specific segment of the electricity generation mix -- normally powering up at peak demand (coincidentally, the wind tends to blow most when electricity demand is highest) and providing a green option for consumers concerned about the environmental impact of their energy choices.

"All right," you say, "let's set aside the supposed downside of wind power. Can you make any money at it or are you living off government subsidies?"

Large scale wind energy facilities are competitive with new fossil fuel generation facilities. In many countries (including in some U.S. markets) wind energy is the lowest cost source.

Does government provide incentives for wind power? Yes. The federal government's Wind Power Production Incentive, for example, will be helpful in spurring the installation of new wind generation in Canada. Once more wind farms are built, the capital cost of these plants will drop as economies of scale develop.

We know this will happen. Wind power is the fastest growing segment of the electricity market. In the last decade alone, the capital cost of wind power has dropped 30% Remember, there is no fuel cost, unlike conventional power plants.

Government incentives in the energy industry to speed resource development are not unheard of. Take, for example, the jewel of Canada's energy sector, the oilsands of northern Alberta. The Alberta Oilsands Technology and Research Authority pumped millions of dollars into technology development for the oilsands starting in the mid-1970s. One could argue that, without that government boost, this tremendous resource may have gone untapped for some time.

TransAlta is expecting big things from Vision Quest. Like every other form of power generation, the return to investors from wind power comes over time. We are confident that our investment in Vision Quest will deliver a return within the next 10 years easily as good as our conventional power production. TransAlta's investors should expect nothing less.

Yes, Mr. Mihlar, wind power makes economical and environmental sense.

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Written by: Bob Page, National Post


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