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Wind energy is cheaper than new hydro dams

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Few Manitobans know wind energy is now cheaper than power from big new dams. Hydro is buying power from the St. Leon wind farm for less than seven cents a kilowatt hour, and from St. Joseph at about the same rate. Power from Wuskwatim is estimated to cost at least nine cents, and some estimates are higher.

When the huge infrastructure of bipoles and converter stations are included, power from Keeyask and Conawapa will cost at least as much and likely more.

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Manitoba has one of the best wind resources on the continent, and there are proposed projects across southern Manitoba for literally thousands of megawatts of new power. A number have all their environmental impact studies done, and are "shovel-ready."

For many years, however, Hydro fought very strenuously to not have to build or buy wind power. The provincial government literally had to force Hydro into the wind business.

There are simply no rational reasons available to support this resistance, especially in Manitoba's case, because wind energy when not needed can be "stored" by reducing the water flowing through our dams.

When the wind doesn't blow, we can open up our dams and make more water power.

Many jurisdictions, such as North Dakota with far more wind power already installed, do not have this flexibility, and would dearly love to use our storage capacity to firm up their wind generation.

Instead of building massive new "bet-the-farm" dams in the north, why not build more wind generation as we need it in the south? Municipalities would love the tax revenue; farmers would love the rent for turbine sites, and everyone would love the new jobs each wind farm brings.

Manitoba would have greater reliability of power in the south, and the lines from the north would be less burdened, providing savings in power losses as well.

Does this sound unrealistic? It shouldn't, because Hydro itself commissioned an independent study in 2010 on adding up to 1,200 megawatts of wind, 1.5 times the nominal capacity of Keeyask, to the southern grid.

The findings? Very little direct cost to Hydro for new transmission and line-loss savings that actually exceeded the costs of that new transmission. While Hydro has not released this study in Manitoba, it is posted on a public site of the Mid-western Independent Systems Operator (MISO).

Such a strategy would invest between $2.5 billion and $3 billion in our economy, and unless Hydro decided to own these facilities, would be financed by the private sector, with little or no new debt to Hydro.

It would provide power cheaper than Hydro can generate from Keeyask when the costs of transmission are fairly included. Perhaps best of all, it can be done on an "as-needed" basis, avoiding the high risk, one-project approach.

Clearly, by using wind, geothermal and energy efficiency, we can more than meet our domestic needs and our export agreements. Best of all, we will be positioning Manitoba for a strong, much more diversified energy future.

Of course, Keeyask and Conawapa are wonderful projects, and they should and will be built when economic conditions and the power supply-demand picture are less cloudy. But is now the time?

Tim Sale is a former NDP minister of energy and minister responsible for Manitoba Hydro.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 19, 2012 A11

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