Government-owned BC Hydro is the only utility in the province, meaning that its plan effectively decides the energy supply mix for the whole of British Columbia. There is only 248MW wind in the province, but it has the potential for much more.
Research by renewables experts GL Garrad Hassan reassessed the 121 project sites analysed by the utility. BC Hydro's figures are based on work it commissioned in 2009, according to Nicholas Heap, BC regional director of Canadian Wind Energy Association (CanWEA), which commissioned the study. Since then turbine prices have dropped dramatically and their productivity has increased.
According to Heap, even without the necessary information to factor in the cost of substations into the analysis - as BC Hydro did - GL Garrad Hassan's results show a big drop in the levelised cost of wind energy from the C$95-303 per megawatt-hour ($93-297/MWh) estimated by the utility.
For sites with wind speeds below 7.5 metres per second, the cost of wind is 38% lower than the draft IRP figures. At medium wind speed sites there is a 20% decline, while in the best wind regimes the drop is 15%.
Beating big hydro
The study found that there are 22,700GWh a year of wind available for less than $95/MWh, which is the estimated cost of energy from BC Hydro's last remaining major hydro development, the C$7.9 billion project known as Site C. The Site C project, which can come online no earlier than 2021, would generate about 5,100GWh a year.
Heap said that the figures, and the fact that wind has a much shorter construction time than large hydro, mean that BC Hydro should reevaluate whether Site C should be the first choice for new generation.
BC Hydro is assessing the impact of recent turbine technology and cost changes and seeks to finalise its IRP by December, said Randy Reimann, director of resource planning. But it does not see wind as a replacement for Site C. The project is important not just for the energy it produces, but for the 1.1GW of dependable capacity it brings to the system.
That ability to provide stable supply is a key consideration, said Matt DaPrato, senior analyst with IHS Emerging Energy Research. "What wind still has a problem with, even as its costs come down, is that it is not a steady source of power like hydro," he said. But the dramatic cost decline should still have an impact on how both the utility and BC policy makers view wind. "It shows wind can serve a much larger role, potentially, than they had originally planned because the cost burden is clearly diminishing," said DaPrato.
Beyond Site C, he added, the province is running out of opportunities to add new large hydro capacity. Adding cost-competitive wind is an "attractive option" for conserving the hydro resources it already has, he said. Another advantage of wind is that it is widespread and accessible, particularly in remote areas where BC Hydro expects a 50% increase in demand over the next 20 years due to new mines and shale gas extraction.
GL Garrad Hassan's analysis also finds that wind is becoming competitive in an increasing number of regions. Twelve of the most cost-competitive sites were found in the north-eastern Peace region, five on Vancouver Island, two on the North Coast and one in the Southern Interior. BC Hydro's analysis had found all but one in Peace.
The study also finds significantly increased productivity, with sites capable of produce 50,000GWh a year compared to 39,000GWh in BC Hydro's analysis. The biggest gains were at low wind-speed sites, where production went up an average of 34%. Production at medium and high speed sites increased 7% and 3% respectively.