While Manitoba's neighbours are building turbines like gangbusters, Manitoba's policy-makers are letting wind power breeze on by.
The province is in the seventh year of an unofficial moratorium on turbines, part of a policy change that has quietly wafted in, replacing a pledge to build 1,000 megawatts of wind power by next year.
There is no request for proposals for new Manitoba wind farms on the horizon, despite the province's excellent wind. Other small provinces such as Saskatchewan, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia are blowing past Manitoba when it comes to wind-generated megawatts. And wind-power companies, which already have nine licensed projects gathering dust, have effectively given up laying the groundwork for turbine farms in Manitoba.
"I would say we're kind of in the dark on Manitoba," said Tom Levy, manager of technical and utility affairs with the Canadian Wind Energy Association. "We don't really know where they're going."
Instead of 1,000 megawatts, the province is looking to backstop wind in the United States and eventually provinces such as Saskatchewan and Ontario, where turbines are popping up everywhere, slowly edging out dirty coal-fired power plants.
Manitoba's hydro dams can act as a battery for wind, storing excess power on gusty days and releasing more water power onto the grid when the wind dies down.
A recent deal with Minnesota Power put that quiet policy shift on paper. As part of a 250-megawatt deal slated to start in 2020, Hydro has agreed to absorb excess wind power produced by that utility's wind farms and store it in its dams by holding back the water flow. When the wind stops blowing south of the border, Manitoba's dams will kick into gear and supply American customers.
It's not clear yet how much money Manitoba Hydro will make from that element of the agreement, but it effectively allows Manitoba to have access to wind power without building its own wind farms, whose power is still more expensive than what comes out of Hydro's old northern dams.
"At this point, our best economic and environmental option going forward is to develop our dams and offset some of the U.S. wind," said Energy Minister Dave Chomiak.
Executives with big wind companies such as Sequoia and Algonquin, both of which are keen to build more wind farms in Manitoba, say it's an understandable policy, especially if better east-west transmission lines allow Manitoba to eventually act as a "regional battery" to Saskatchewan, Ontario and Alberta in addition to American customers.
The one downside, noted Algonquin Power's project development vice-president Jeff Norman, is rural Manitoba fails to benefit from millions of dollars in property taxes and wind-rights payments to farmers who could use a new, steady source of income.
Chomiak said it's simply not cost-effective to build wind farms now a federal subsidy has ended, though wind advocates say construction prices have dropped dramatically, especially when compared with new northern dam projects.
Chomiak stopped short of saying the province would not build any more wind farms in the coming years. Instead, he said some additional wind may become part of the province's energy mix in the future pending the outcome of a huge, politically charged review of Manitoba Hydro's future dam-building plans.
The Needs For and Alternatives To review, expected to begin before year's end, will see Hydro lay out before the Public Utilities Board the justification for building the Keeyask and Conawapa dams at a cost of $16 billion, and detail why other options don't make financial and technical sense.
The PUB, which has expressed increasing skepticism of Hydro's dam-building plans, has repeatedly floated the idea of more wind power as well as a natural gas-fired plant, both cheaper and faster to build than dams. In an order released last Tuesday related to the upcoming NFAT review, the PUB again asked Hydro to keep wind power on its radar.
"The Board expects Manitoba Hydro to include an alternative plan that is premised on incorporating more wind energy in conjunction with a combined cycle gas turbine," said the PUB. "This scenario should examine various options, including the option of up to 1,000 megawatts of wind in conjunction with an efficient combined cycle gas turbine that uses the best available technology for optimization of intermittent generation resources"