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Op-ed: Manitoba has untapped potential for wind power

December 4, 2017 — 

The following is an op-ed written by biosystems engineering professor Nazim Cicek. It was originally published in the Winnipeg Free Press on November 27, 2017. 

Manitobans are familiar with the terminology used for geographic regions of importance such as the “Sun Belt,” the “Wheat Belt” or the “Rust Belt,” but how many have heard about the “Wind Belt”? It is now commonly used for the interior region of the United States, which stretches from Texas to North Dakota, and represents the most fertile ground for wind-energy development in North America.

The wind does not stop at the border. Manitoba wind maps clearly indicate that large swaths of the province experience wind speeds in line with those of the Wind Belt. Especially at 80 metres of elevation and higher, which is the minimum hub height of utility-scale wind turbines. We are home to wind energy resources that would be the envy of many other regions in the world.

It should come as no surprise that the latest U.S. Department of Energy report shows that the top seven states in installed wind-energy capacity in 2016 lie within the Wind Belt. Leading the way is Texas (with 2,611 megawatts installed capacity in 2016), followed by Oklahoma, Iowa, Kansas, and our neighbours to the south, North Dakota (603 MW).

North Dakota’s cumulative capacity, as of the end of 2016, sits at 2,746 MW, which represents 21.5 per cent of all electricity generating capacity within that state. That’s more than 10 times the cumulative installed wind energy capacity in Manitoba (258 MW).

Disruptive change in technology over the past 10 years has completely transformed the economics of wind energy. Forget what you thought you knew about wind energy (too intermittent, too costly, needs government incentives, etc.) and consider the following: land-based turbines have gotten much larger (both in rotor diameter and hub height) and, combined with new turbine designs, advanced materials, and improvements in wind farm configurations, capacity factors have gone up from 23 per cent to 44 per cent in the past 15 years. This means wind energy farms now run at their maximum capacity almost twice as often as they did in 2002.

Along with these technological advances has come the addition of a competitive marketplace, with a large number of new wind turbine providers globally leading to substantial downward pressure on costs. Power purchase agreements (between the wind energy developer and local utility) within the Wind Belt are reported to be as low as US$0.02/kilowatt hour.

As the federal renewable production tax credit (currently at US$0.023/kWh) gets phased out over the next few years, one can expect the net cost of wind energy to increase. But even with a 75-cent Canadian dollar, and no subsidies in place, Manitoba Hydro should be able to purchase power from wind energy developers at below five cents/kWh. Recognizing that we are currently paying more than eight cents/kWh on our utility bills (with near-term projections of 12 cents/kWh), wind energy in Manitoba is a lucrative proposition.

When comparing current wind energy costs to other electricity generation technologies (including coal-fired, natural gas-fired and utility-scale solar), experts prefer to use a measurement called levelized cost of energy (LCOE). LCOE includes the capital expenditure. This apple-to-apple comparison shows that in 2017, the unsubsidized LCOE of wind energy in the interior regions of the U.S. is more favourable than any other power generation system, including natural gas-fired plants, which are next best on the list.

A new report published by the U.S. energy department in August predicts that through further innovations, wind energy costs can be reduced by an additional 50 per cent by 2030, making it competitive with the fuel-only cost of natural gas-fired power plants. What this means is that building a wind farm will be cheaper over the lifetime of the project than paying for the fuel alone for an existing natural gas plant, making conversions of such plants to wind farms financially feasible.

Much of the gains are to come from new turbine and tower designs that enhance wind capture at higher elevations, better real-time sensing technology to improve power production reliability and efficiency, and improved modelling to help turbine locations and grid integration.

Although Manitoba has additional electrical capacity coming online with the completion of the Keeyask Hydroelectric Generating Station in a few years, it is important to consider how to meet future demand from increases in population, electric vehicles, electric transit, and partial conversions to electric space heating. The renewable energy sector is undergoing transformational change at a rapid rate, and we need to adjust our thinking and decision-making to keep pace.

It is in the best economic interest of Manitoba to move away from imported fossil fuels and fully utilize our natural advantage of living downwind. The benefits extend beyond our local utility and include revenue for rural landowners, new jobs in the wind sector, an improved trade balance, carbon credits and overall sustainability.

Our established hydroelectric resources provide the perfect battery (baseline power) for intermittent energy sources such as wind and solar. Judging from nearby jurisdictions in the U.S., we should be able to at least quadruple our wind energy capacity without jeopardizing reliability or having to build additional baseline power.

Next time you’re at Portage and Main — the so-called windiest corner of Canada — consider it a blessing, even if it is January and it feels like a knife blade on your cheeks. Living within the Wind Belt has its perks. We just need to cash in.

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