Is the offshore wind opportunity in Ontario permanently dead in the water?
It was in February 2011 – an election year—when the Liberal government abruptly killed the ambitions of any wind developer looking to place wind turbines in the Great Lakes. It booted offshore wind out of the feed-in tariff program and it suspended all applications, citing the need for more scientific research until, in the words of the environment minister, there is assurance “any offshore wind developments are protective of the environment.”
That’s a pretty high standard. Can any energy development really protect the environment?
Never mind that government scientists have been studying the issue since at least 2007, or that when a previous moratorium on offshore wind development was lifted in 2008, then-premier Dalton McGuinty was convinced that such developments could be done in a way that would not compromise ecosystems.
But more studies were needed. Fair enough.
As the Star’s John Spears reported last month, three studies were posted on the Ministry of Natural Resources’ website in February – two dealing with impacts on aquatic species and fish habitat, and one a more comprehensive engineering impact study.
Strangely, all three were completed and submitted to the government in spring-summer 2011. It’s not clear why it took 18 months for them to become publicly known, or what has been done since then.
It’s also not clear how many more studies are coming, what kinds of studies are still needed, when they will all be completed, and if, once completed, the ministry has any intention of reconsidering the moratorium.
“We still need to gather more information.” That’s all ministry spokesperson Jolanta Kowalski was prepared to answer when repeatedly asked the questions. The natural resources ministry, she added, “will work with the Ministry of Environment and other agencies to help determine future research and science priorities and activities.”
In other words, there’s no rush. They’re still determining. Still gathering. I can’t remember any other energy source being put through so much study for so long before a single kilowatt was produced, except perhaps the kind that creates highly radioactive waste.
Here’s some perspective: two years ago Ontario was in a strong position to lead the world on freshwater offshore wind development, attract a major turbine manufacturer, establish a compelling local supply chain, and create many thousands of jobs. Today, the government is being sued for billions of dollars for turning its back on this potential, not to mention the investors it originally wooed.
Meanwhile, Ohio has picked up the slack. The non-profit Lake Erie Energy Development Corporation (LEEDco) received $4 million (U.S.) last month from the U.S. Department of Energy that will go toward engineering, design and permitting work for its “Icebreaker” offshore wind project.
Icebreaker will be a five-turbine (possibly nine) offshore wind farm located about 11 kilometres off the shoreline of Cleveland. It will have the potential to generate more than 20 megawatts of electricity, and will be a first-of-its-kind in North America.
Turbine manufacturer Siemens, wind developer Freshwater Wind, Case Western Reserve University and municipal governments in the area are partners in the project. LEEDCo’s goal is to see 1,000 megawatts of offshore wind developed by 2020 within Ohio’s jurisdiction.
That could have been us. Note that Siemens used to have an interest in partnering up in Ontario until we abandoned all talk of offshore wind.
Is it that the studies Ontario has conducted to date suggest the risks to the environment and health are too high to proceed? No. They do highlight some real risks, but they also draw attention to the many benefits and point out ways to minimize the risks.
“If care is taken to properly site project locations, avoid sensitive habitat areas, employ available options or continue to develop new options for mitigation, and conduct appropriate biological monitoring, the potential impacts of offshore wind power production could in fact be minimal,” concludes one of the studies from the natural resources ministry’s own aquatic research group.
The study goes on to talk about the limitations of doing lab and computer-model studies. “We cannot fully understand the environmental impact that a wind power project will have until we are able to study the response of the local system to the construction and operation of an actual installation in the field.”
It suggests that the next step be small-scale pilot projects, at minimum. “Ultimately, however, the greatest and most valuable knowledge would be gained through focused research and monitoring at commercial-scale demonstration projects throughout the construction phase and over the long-term during operation. Looking ahead, collaboration between government, industry and academic partners to plan and initiate this type of project would be highly valuable.”
That’s exactly what the Ohio consortium is doing.
Nobody is saying that Ontario should run out and develop 1,000 megawatts of wind tomorrow. But the current surpluses being experienced in the province’s electricity system won’t last forever. Coal generation will be gone within the year. Aging nuclear reactors will soon enough be taken offline for refurbishment or decommissioning.
The power crunch will come. Offshore wind, responsibly developed and set back far enough from the shore, could be an important part of Ontario’s clean energy mix. If we need more research, maybe it’s time we actually dipped our feet in the water and actually built something we can properly study.
Or we can just look over our neighbour’s shoulder.
Tyler Hamilton, author of Mad Like Tesla, writes weekly about green energy and clean technologies.