Renewable Energy Trends in Ontario: Benefits & Drawbacks

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Renewable energy refers to energy produced from sources that do not deplete, or can be replenished within a human’s lifetime. The most common examples include wind, geothermal, biomass, and hydropower. Renewable energy has become a growing source of energy production in some places throughout the developed world. As such, global renewable energy supply is predicted to increase, but this is largely dependent on policies and politics.

In Ontario, renewable energy generation has become more prevalent over time. In 2005, coal was Ontario’s third largest source of electricity — however, it was phased out completely by 2014, and was replaced with increased nuclear, wind, solar and natural gas generation. In 2016, hydropower was Ontario’s second largest source of electricity, and has accounted for an average of 23.1% of generation since 2005 (Canada Energy Regulator, 2017).

Non-hydro renewables experienced strong growth under the “feed-in-tariff” (FIT) Program, an incentive implemented in 2006. FIT was developed to encourage and promote greater use of renewable energy sources for electricity generating projects in Ontario (IESO, 2016). The program was a standardized way to contract for renewable energy generation, and was North America’s first comprehensive guaranteed pricing structures for renewable electricity production, offering stable prices under long-term contracts (IESO, 2016). Unfortunately, the Minister of Energy released a directive in December 16, 2016 to cease the acceptance of applications under the FIT Program. However, before the halting of the program, wind, solar and biomass production increased from 0.7% in 2005, to 10.8% combined in 2016 (Canada Energy Regulator, 2017). As well, Ontario produced the most wind and solar energy of any province or territory in 2016, at 12 123 GWh and 2 566 GWh, respectively (Canada Energy Regulator, 2017).

Wind Energy in Ontario

At present, Ontario has the largest wind energy market in Canada, with a total of 94 projects, and 2,681 wind turbines throughout the province as of 2019 (Canwea, 2020). Wind turbines are a common sight in Europe, where country’s such as Denmark derive almost 30% of their electricity from wind energy (OMAFRA, 2016). However, wind energy is also becoming more common in Canada, with Ontario currently leading the way in installed megawatts (MW).

Many wind turbines have been installed in farming areas across Ontario because of the wind resource that is available in these open areas. The right site is clear, unobstructed and exposed to steady winds. Proper site assessments are important because some turbines are designed to cut out in high winds, while some cannot operate if the wind speed is too slow (OMAFRA, 2016). Figure 1 illustrates Ontario’s participation in wind energy generation (NRCAN, 2020).

Figure 1 – Largest Wind Farms in Canada

Wind Energy Benefits

Economic Benefits

As of March 2020, wind energy is the lowest-cost source of new electricity generation for Ontario, other provinces, and globally (see Figure 2). Wind power has no fuel costs (wind is free), and technological advances continue to increase capacity factors, while lowering costs (Canwea, 2020). Not only is wind energy the lowest-cost source of new electricity generation in Ontario, but it is also a source of significant economic benefits. Ontario leads Canada in wind energy operations, and wind energy supplies approximately 8% of the province’s electricity demand. Some other economic benefits that the wind energy industry provides the province includes:

  • Thousands of jobs in manufacturing, construction, and local services;
  • Property tax revenue for municipalities; funding for community-based initiatives;
  • New and sustainable revenue for Indigenous partners; and
  • Ontario’s wind energy industry is at the heart of the growing wind turbine operations and maintenance business for Canada’s 6,400+ wind turbines.
Figure 2 — CanWEA wind energy costs

Reliability

Studies carried out by Ontario’s Independent Electricity System Operator forecast a need for significant new electricity generation, especially from 2023 onwards, as the Pickering Nuclear station is supposed to shut down, other nuclear units are being refurbished, and energy generation contracts expire (Canwea, 2020). New wind energy could help keep Ontario’s electricity supply reliable, as well as more affordable. A study of Canada’s wind energy resources has illustrated the country’s ability to get more than 1/3 of its electricity from wind energy, without compromising grid reliability. Other areas in the world are proving this is possible, like Denmark, which now produces more than 44% of its electricity from wind turbines on an annual basis, and in the United States, 4 States now generate 30% of their electricity using wind energy (Canwea, 2020).

Flexibility

Overall, wind energy is quick to construct, can be built to meet specific local needs, and can offer flexible power — especially when paired with energy storage, demand response programs, and/or other non-emitting and renewable energies such as hydro or solar power (OMAFRA, 2016). Wind energy can also provide a suite of electricity grid services, often more easily and more cost effectively than conventional sources, helping to ensure reliable, flexible energy supply. These services include:

  • Operating reserve;
  • Regulation;
  • Reactive support;
  • Voltage control;
  • Primary frequency response;
  • Load following; and
  • Fast frequency response.

GHG Emission Reduction

Ontario has achieved a 90% reduction in electricity sector greenhouse gas emissions over the past decade, and wind energy has been a crucial contributor to this (Canwea, 2020). Wind turbines do not emit greenhouse gases, just as they do not pollute the air. As Ontario continues tackling climate change, it must continue reducing carbon emissions and increase electricity’s role in industry, transportation, and our buildings. Wind energy will be one of the go-to technologies for reducing the province’s emissions, while also keeping its electricity affordable, reliable, and economically beneficial to the province and its communities (Canwea, 2020).

Drawbacks of Wind Energy

Costs

Wind power must still compete with conventional generation sources on a cost basis. Depending on how energetic a wind site is, the wind farm may not be cost competitive. Even though the cost of wind energy has decreased dramatically over the past decade, the technology requires a higher initial investment than fossil-fuelled generators.

Cold Climate Impacts

Figure 3 — Icing of Wind Turbine Blades

The operation of wind turbines in a cold climate such as Ontario’s involves additional challenges not present in warmer locations, such as:

  • Accumulation of ice on wind turbine blades, resulting in reduced power output and increased rotor loads;
  • Cold weather shutdown to prevent equipment failure or damage; and
  • Limited or reduced access for maintenance activities.

Icing can occur up to 20% of the time between the months of November and April — therefore the turbines must be able to sustain at least limited icing without incurring damage that would hinder operations (NRCAN, 2017). Wind turbine manufacturers are increasingly recognizing the impacts of cold climate operation and are building turbines better equipped to handle winter conditions. Various types of rotor blade de-icing and anti-icing mechanisms are being employed, however, it at this point in time, it isn’t clear which cold climate solutions delivers the highest performance, while still being cost-effective, making this an active area of research (NRCAN, 2017).

Neighbourhood Objections

Although wind turbines have relatively little impact on the environment compared to other convention power generators, concern exists over the noise produced by the turbine blades, and the visual impacts to the landscape (People have widely varied reactions to seeing wind turbines on their landscape. Some people see a symbol of economic development and environmental progress, while others may see industrial encroachment in natural and rural landscapes. There are multiple ways to minimize the visual impacts of wind turbines, including painting them a neutral colour, arraying them in visually pleasing way, and designing each turbine uniformly.

However, the aesthetics of the wind turbines is not the only aspect that communities in Ontario have taken issue with. Wind turbines are not silent — the sounds they produce are typically foreign to the rural settings where they are most often used, but as technology has improved, the amount of sound emitted has fallen considerably. While this may be the case, many community members have been speaking out to the media about the issues they have faced relating to the implementation of wind turbines in their community. In May 2017, Mike and Carla Stachura bought a house in rural Ontario, where they run a wildlife sanctuary with lamas and a variety of birds, and planned to spend their retirement years enjoying the peace and quiet of country life (Hill, 2017). However, Mrs. Stachura states that their dream was shattered when wind turbines began popping up near their home in Goderich, Ontario. Since then, they have been unable to sleep and are exposed to prolonged periods of what they describe as a “irritating noise.” In the 2017 interview, Mrs. Stachura stated, “it was alarming, there was a high-pitched tonal wooing. It was like ‘woooo wooo wooo’ and that was in addition to crashing and the thumping and whomping” (Hill, 2017). The situation that the Stachura’s found themselves in is not uncommon in rural Ontario.

Adverse Environmental Impacts

While wind energy is one of the cleanest sources of electricity today, there are some environmental impacts associated with wind turbines and farms to be considered, including:

  1. Local Wildlife: Perhaps the most widely studied adverse impacts of wind power is the threat they pose to local species populations — particularly birds and bats. When the blades of wind turbines rotate at high speeds, the air pressure around the blades shifts and increases the likelihood of birds and bats colliding with the blades. However, the exact impact on local bird and bat life can vary dramatically from one wind farm to the next, and properly siting wind farms can often eliminate most of these concerns. Additionally, building wind farms can disrupt the natural habitat of several different animal species. Constructing wind farms requires human accessibility to potentially otherwise remote areas, which can sometimes mean building new roads or clearing new land. This can result in habitat segmentation or degradation and loss for certain local species populations.
  2. Land Use: The amount of land required to install a wind turbine varies depending on the size of the project, where its located (e.g. level ground, a body of water, or on a slope), and more. It is important to note that wind turbines and their supporting infrastructure do not take up much physical land space — however, individual turbines must have a sufficient amount of space between them, which can add up for large-scale wind projects. Fortunately, many wind farms can be built on areas that have been cleared. New wind farms can also be set up for dual land use and can also serve as pastureland for livestock, crop lands for farming, or recreational trails.

Regulatory Issues

Wind projects are regulated more strictly than biomass or solar, with additional reporting requirements for approval.

References

Canwea. (2020). Wind Energy in Ontario. Retrieved from https://canwea.ca/wind-energy/ontario-market-profile/

Government of Canada. (2017). Canada’s Renewable Power Landscape 2017 — Energy Market Analysis. Retrieved from https://www.cer-rec.gc.ca/nrg/sttstc/lctrct/rprt/2017cndrnwblpwr/prvnc/on-eng.html

Government of Ontario. (2018). Renewable Energy Approvals. Retrieved from https://www.ontario.ca/page/renewable-energy-approvals

Hill. (2017). Ontario family says wind turbines have made life a ‘nightmare’. Retrieved from https://globalnews.ca/news/3490234/ontario-wind-turbines-family-complaints/

IESO. (2016). Feed-In-Tariff Program. Retrieved from http://www.ieso.ca/sector-participants/feed-in-tariff-program/overview

McGlade. (2020). Renewable Energy Development Lecture. Fleming College.

Ministry of Agriculture, Food & Rural Affairs. (2016). Wind Energy. Retrieved from http://www.omafra.gov.on.ca/english/engineer/ge_bib/wind.html

Natural Resources Canada. (2020). Renewable Energy Facts. Retrieved from https://www.nrcan.gc.ca/science-data/data-analysis/energy-data-analysis/energy-facts/renewable-energy-facts/20069

Natural Resources Canada. (2017). Wind Energy in Cold Climates. Retrieved from https://www.nrcan.gc.ca/energy/energy-sources-distribution/renewables/wind-energy/wind-energy-cold-climates/7321

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