Thursday, July 17, 2008

The answer my friend may not be blowing in the wind

The Ontario government recently announced that it has lifted the moratorium on building wind farms in the Great Lakes. No doubt it was spurred on by thoughts of being left behind with wind farm stirrings on the United States side of the lakes. Can't be left behind now can we? The government is also being lobbied with tantalizing offers of establishing a wind turbine manufacturing capability in Ontario.

In real estate they say the three most important things are: location, location, location. Well, in politics it is: jobs, jobs, jobs. This is especially so as Ontario's automotive industry is collapsing around its ears.

But. There are those drawbacks. Always those drawbacks.

First, there are no current windfarms in the lakes so we have nothing to measure and determine the impacts. In Cleveland there is a modest proposal to build about 10 of these in Lake Erie as a demonstration project. Sensible.

Second, get ready to watch your wallet flying out the door with the wind. There are no wind farms of any substantial nature that have not been built without government subsidies, in Europe, the world's leading windpower area, at least.

Denmark has the most experience with offshore windpower and it has not been rosy. It keeps all its coal powered plants in full operation because wind power has a nasty habit of providing little power when demand is highest and too much power when demand is lowest. You cannot dispense with other sources of power, so there are no savings. Furthermore, there are days when the wind turbines actually draw power out of the grid. Eighty-four percent of Denmark's wind produced power is exported, and only about 3.5% ever gets used locally. On average, wind turbines run at about 20% efficiency.

Another consideration is the size of these things. They can be over 300 feet high with blades of 60 feet in length. It is more difficult to service them offshore, so the costs are higher.

So what going on in Ontario? There is a proposal to build about 80 of these things on Wolfe Island near Kingston. It started off as 20 and then grew like topsy. Now the good folks on Wolfe are getting antsy. There is another proposal to build about 150 towers 15 kilometers south of Belleville, but, ominously, the proponent has its eyes on doubling that number. Toronto Hydro wants to build 80 of them off the Scarborough bluffs. The Ontario government has identifies 64 potential sites in the lakes (presumably, mostly Lake Ontario and Lake Erie, where the bulk of the electricity consumers reside).

I have two objections. I think it is a crime to spoil a natural vista with industrial towers. I also don't believe that the net benefit (power/cost) justifies them. If the taxpayers are going to have to subsidize power generation, then let's spend it on stuff that we know will work, like nuclear.

Finally, we wouldn't even be thinking about this if the world hadn't gone crazy over this nonsense about CO2 being a problem in the atmosphere. Wrong diagnosis for a not very well-defined problem, followed by expensive and nearly useless remedies.

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