Ontario’s power generation is changing rapidly. By 2014, there will be no more coal generation while renewable energy sources (particularly wind) will make up the difference. This goal has been lauded by a number of environmental groups as it will help lower Ontario’s carbon emissions, reduce air pollution, decrease our reliance on non-renewable sources of energy and at the same time, create jobs in a rapidly growing industry. However, no matter how positive these changes may be, there are certain concerns that need to be addressed about going green.
Wind power has made significant strides here in Ontario; the industry has seen an increase in the number of large scale turbines from 10 in 2003 to more than 700 today. You can also expect that number to increase in the coming years as well. According to the Ontario Ministry of Energy’s Long Term Plan, by 2030, wind power will generate 10% of the province’s energy needs (in 2010, it supplied only 2%).
Increasing our reliance on wind turbines, however, has its own set of challenges. Unlike other sources of energy such as nuclear, coal or natural gas, wind turbines can only generate energy if there is a sufficient breeze. As a result of this inherent flaw, wind power is not ideal for baseload capacity as it is not entirely reliable. Of course, when building wind turbines, energy planners look to build turbines in areas that are consistently windy, however, it’s possible that even the most notoriously windy areas can go without a breeze for prolonged periods of time.
With this in mind, the all-too-important balancing act between generation and consumption becomes slightly more complicated. Adding an increasing amount of intermittent wind power might cause generating capacity to fluctuate over shorter periods of time. Currently, whatever wind capacity is generated is used as there is no viable way to store energy in Ontario, and on days where demand is considerably higher and wind cannot make up the difference, more nuclear and natural gas generation fills the void. Although our current grid can adjust load to compensate for wind power, a greater understanding of what is happening to our grid at all times will be needed in the likely event that renewables will play an increasingly larger role. In the worst case scenario, excess wind generation will need to be sent to neighbouring grids that may need extra capacity (e.g. Quebec, New York, Michigan) so as to avoid potentially catastrophic overloads (refer to the August blog post).
Another issue that should likely arise due to increased wind capacity is energy cost. Although several cost analysis have suggested that wind power is competitive with other sources of energy in terms of cost, as a result of massive subsidies given to nuclear power, wind is considerably more expensive per kWh. As such, more wind power will likely increase peoples’ utility bills in the near future.
With the rising cost of energy, a greater emphasis is placed on energy management and conservation. As mentioned in a previous blog post, energy management systems for large industrial and commercial operations can help reduce energy consumption and utility costs. Furthermore, an energy management system can pay for itself through energy savings within months of deployment.
Increasing wind generation capacity in Ontario will benefit the environment greatly. The challenges that come with it on the other hand, are not reasons to prevent more wind generation, but rather they should be seen as a warning that there is no perfect and certainly no free solution to our energy issues. Wind energy can play a very crucial role in our electricity system and although it may cost more and require additional technology and infrastructure to support it, if business and industry move forward intelligently, there should be no reason why we can’t have lower utility bills and an adequate supply of energy.