Tilting at Windmills, Not!

By Tooker Gomberg, Pincher Creek, Alberta.

Wind as a clean energy source.

Everybody talks about the weather. Occasionally I curse it. Frankly, I get a bit uptight trying to pedal when the wind blasts my face for hours on end.

So my ears perked up recently when a fellow cyclist tried to teach me his technique of angling one’s bike and body so they act like a sail. He claimed he could zigzag across windy roads using the wind to speed him along. Didn’t work for me.

But he was on the right track. When you have lemons, make lemonade. That’s what they’re doing in Pincher Creek, Alberta – turning some of the best wind in Canada into a profitable resource.

On a ridge outside of town are fifty two elegant wind turbines (each with three, 16 meter-long blades) spinning silently, creating electricity. Cycling by them, in the wind, can be a grunt, yet it’s great to know that there is electricity being generated in Alberta that doesn’t come from burning dirty coal.

With all the international concern about climate change and CO2 emissions, the Alberta Government is under growing pressure to lessen the province’s output. As the largest emitter of any province in Canada (responsible for almost one third of Canada’s CO2 emissions), the Alberta government is supporting voluntary measures to address the problem.

Yet at the recent international climate meetings in Geneva it was concluded that voluntary measures aren’t working and mandatory steps were recommended. There is serious talk of a carbon tax. Alberta industry’s knee-jerk response: tales of horror and destruction.

Into the breach comes a timely proposal. A major German wind turbine manufacturer is prepared to set up a manufacturing plant to build wind turbines in Pincher Creek for local installation and export across Canada, the USA, and beyond.

The initiative has broad support. As Dale Johnson, President of Wind Power Inc. says: “It’s a real coup to see the environmental community, industry and government on the same side, especially on an energy issue.”

Roy Davidson of the Pincher Creek and District Economic Development Board puts it this way: “The Pincher Creek wind initiative proposal can assist in cleaning up our environment, contribute $5.5 billion of economic development and create 2,000 new jobs (over 30 years)”. The jobs are particularly important and timely as the nearby Shell natural gas plant is in the process of laying off up to 200 people. Wind energy creates jobs. For a given amount of electricity, wind creates five times more employment than coal.

As non-renewable resources dwindle, renewables can kick in and create a more sustainable local economy. And they can do it cleaner than fossil fuels. This project alone would keep four million tons of CO2 out of the atmosphere annually if it replaced coal fired kilowatts.

What about cost? The utilities say that wind isn’t competitive, yet increasingly research proves that wind is actually cheaper. The California Energy Commission concluded that wind is less costly than coal, gas or nuclear energy when fuel and operating expenses are calculated over the life of the plant.

This doesn’t even include so called ‘externalities’ such as air pollution, acid rain, respiratory problems and associated health care costs resulting from burning all that coal. Add in the potential costs of climate change, and the ecological damage of strip mining, and wind easily breezes ahead of the competition. Studies show that if you included the environmental and social costs of coal combustion the cost of a kilowatt hour could double.

Public support for wind power in Canada enjoys overwhelming support. A poll conducted in 1995 indicated that almost 80% of Canadians believe that wind generated electricity should be a utility priority in Canada.

So what’s standing in the way? It appears that the big utilities aren’t too keen to share their monopoly. Is all the talk of ‘free enterprise Alberta’ just so much wind in the poplars?

These thoughts swirl through my head as I pedal along. Now if I could only figure out how to harvest the wind while cycling, I’d be cruising. And whistling. Remember how Dylan crooned: “The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind.” The question? “How could Alberta create employment, reduce air pollution and address climate change for fun and profit?”

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