The Maritimes: Canada’s Secret Trailblazer in Wind Energy

You probably wouldn't guess it, but Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia are unsung heroes in Canadian wind energy — producing more than 10 per cent of their electricity needs from wind, more than any other provinces.

“Some electricity utility companies in Canada will tell you all you’ll ever get from wind is 10 per cent of your electrical needs,” Carl Brothers, an engineer and wind energy consultant, said. "In PEI, we are closing in on 30 per cent."

By comparison, Ontario, Canada’s biggest wind power producer, manages to meet about four per cent of its domestic demand through wind energy.

The shift to renewable energy in Nova Scotia and PEI in the last decade has been nothing short of remarkable.  At the turn of the 21st century, both provinces were dependent on coal and oil-fired power plants for nearly all of their electricity. Neither province possesses the massive waterpower resources Quebec, Manitoba and British Columbia rely on to produce renewable electricity.

Yet today Canada’s two smallest provinces have approximately 25 per cent renewables in their respective electricity mixes and wind power is a leading component. Germany, a global leader in clean energy, generates more than one third of its electricity from renewable sources like wind, solar and biomass.

“We took a look around at the domestic resources available to us and renewable energy, predominantly wind, just made sense,” Catherine Abreu, an energy campaigner for the Ecology Action Centre in Halifax, told DeSmog Canada.

Description: nknown Object“We have a lot of insight to share on what kind of investments and changes need to be made to existing infrastructure that will be true [for jurisdictions] across Canada as we move towards a clean energy economy,” Abreu said.

If Canada is to have any hope of doing its part to tackle climate change, the country needs to find a way to incorporate substantially more renewable energy into its energy mix. A recent study indicates Canada could produce close to 60 per cent of its primary energy (electricity, transportation, heating/cooling, industry) from wind alone by 2050.

Non-water based renewables like wind and solar currently make up only three per cent of the country’s electrical generation.

Lessons learned in the Maritimes’ rapid transition to wind energy could hold the keys to Canada finally plugging into this clean, sustainable and largely untapped resource.  

PEI Wind Power: "Islanders Own It"

Feeling the pinch from the rapid rise in fossil fuel prices in the early 2000s, PEI and Nova Scotia set ambitious provincial renewable energy targets. In 2008, the PEI government announced 500 megawatts worth of wind energy facilities to be installed in the province, which is equivalent to one third of Alberta’s current wind power capacity. Alberta is the third biggest producer of wind energy in Canada.

“One thing PEI doesn’t have in the ground are fossil fuels, but we have a wonderful wind resource,” Brothers told DeSmog Canada.

Brothers has been in the PEI renewable energy business for over three decades and is also the CEO of Frontier Power Systems in Charlottetown.

Even though PEI has yet to hit its 500 megawatt wind target, nearly 100 per cent of all electricity produced on PEI comes from wind farms, a feat unmatched anywhere in Canada. The rest of PEI’s electrical needs are met mostly by electricity imports from New Brunswick.

A key feature of early wind development in PEI was public ownership.

“Prince Edward Islanders have always had a strong environmental ethic,” Brothers said. “And there is a definite sense of public ownership and pride in our wind farms. Islanders own it.”

PEI Energy Corporation, a provincial Crown corporation, owned and operated early wind facilities and the PEI government guaranteed the loans for the startup projects. To this day, PEI Energy generates the wind power used domestically and private sector companies sell wind energy out of province.

This sense of public ownership may also explain why PEI has not seen the same public pushback against wind turbines that has been experienced by private companies in Ontario.

The benefits of wind energy go beyond cleaning up the province’s electricity. PEI’s North Cape Wind Farm, one of Canada’s first commercial wind farms, is now the site of the Wind Energy Institute of Canada, a leading national wind energy innovation and research institution.

The province’s Hermanville/Clearspring Wind Development Project provides approximately $350,000 annually to nearby landowners and the community at large through royalties and a newly established community development fund, according to the PEI government.

“At the end of the day we need to find a way to sustainability. Our grandchildren will think less of us if we don’t take the initiative,” Brothers told DeSmog.

Source: Canadian Wind Energy Association

Nova Scotia Leads All Provinces in Cutting GHG Emissions

Nova Scotia has quietly crept to the head of the pack as a provincial climate leader. The province implemented North America’s first “hard caps” on emissions in the electricity sector, has a 40 per cent renewables 2020 target and is in position to lead all provinces and territories in future GHG reductions.

Nova Scotia also has installed more wind power capacity than B.C., a province 20 times its size. The province’s Community Feed-In-Tariff, or COMFIT, program deserves much of the credit for gaining public acceptance of wind power.

“COMFIT projects in the end did not produce a lot of energy, but it did help in winning over the public,” Brendan Haley, a Broadbent Institute research fellow and former renewable energy campaigner in Nova Scotia, said.

Introduced in 2011, the COMFIT program guaranteed a predetermined fixed rate to be paid on the electricity local producers sold. Only community entities like municipalities, energy co-operatives, First Nations and universities could participate in and reap the benefits of the program. COMFIT incentivized getting into the renewable energy game by minimizing the financial risks for non-private sector players.

The results exceeded even the Nova Scotia government’s expectations.

A provincial government report estimates 125 megawatts of electricity are produced by projects under COMFIT and an additional 100 megawatts are expected to come online in the future. Most projects are wind farms. When COMFIT was established, the provincial government expected only 100 megawatts of electricity from the program.

“If you look at the latest energy policy, it is fairly transparent the current government is doing whatever it takes to push off any rate increase until after the next election,” Haley told DeSmog Canada.

Despite COMFIT’s success, the Nova Scotia government cancelled the program last August. The provincial government justified the move by claiming it was keeping consumer prices on power bills down. Nova Scotia does have some of the highest electrical rates in Canada.

A year earlier, the same Liberal provincial government capped Nova Scotia’s energy efficiency budget under similar same cost-saving pretenses. Haley says the province’s previously strong energy efficiency standards on electricity played a big role in Nova Scotia’s ability to make deep greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions cuts.

Source: Environment and Climate Change Canada, 2016

An additional reason for the Nova Scotia’s government cancellation of COMFIT was that the program “had achieved its objectives.” Abreu of the Ecology Action Centre argued at the time that surpassing COMFIT’s original goals “should be cause for celebration, not cancellation.”

Atlantic Canada Could Be Canada’s 100 Per Cent Renewable Testing Grounds

The renewable energy revolution in the Maritimes has somewhat stalled and the reasons are not only political.

“The Maritimes are really quickly coming up against the limits of our existing infrastructure,” Abreu said.

Electrical grids in Canada are designed to distribute electricity from a handful of large powerful sources like coal plants or hydro dams, not dozens of smaller intermittent ones like wind turbines or solar panels.

“We are figuring it out,” Abreu told DeSmog Canada. “New Brunswick is really invested in understanding smart grids and how to implement them, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick are experimenting with regional dispatch and utilities are doing the work to understand how to deal with intermittent renewable energy.”

PEI may be a ‘lab,' holding clues to solving Canada’s energy questions. Brothers and Abreu agree the province’s vast wind resource and size make PEI the ideal testing grounds for large-scale deployment of electric vehicles and other measures fundamental in shifting Canada from a fossil fuels economy to a clean energy society.

Brothers is concerned that with low oil and natural gas prices and without a price on carbon pollution, the PEI government has lost its appetite for building more wind farms despite the province’s heavily reliance on fossil fuels for energy and tremendous potential to go big in wind power.

A study in 2015 conducted by Stanford University Engineering Professor Mark Jacobson identifies Atlantic Canada, as well as the Pacific Coast, Great Lakes and the Prairies as areas in the world with “strong” wind resources available for power generation.

Image Credit: The Wind Energy Institute of Canada via Green Energy Futures/Flickr

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