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Canada

Rally signals surge of popular support, In a moving demonstration of grass roots support for wind power the people of pingher Creek are countering a high profile advertising compaign from the fossil f

In a moving demonstration of grass roots support for wind power the people of Alberta, Canada's Pincher Creek are countering a high profile advertising campaign from the fossil fuel lobby by demanding a new direction from government on energy pricing.

In an impressive show of support for wind power in the Canadian province of Alberta, nearly 1000 people rallied in the town of Pincher Creek on January 29 in support of a proposed wind plant of several hundred megawatt and a manufacturing facility for Enercon wind turbines. Debate on the future of this $5.5 billion project -- with the wind plant element to be built over ten years in increments of 25 average megawatt a year -- is intensifying with the approach of this month's provincial election.

Wind power proponents, local politicians and environmentalists addressed the rally, sponsored by "Naturally Powerful Pincher Creek" (NPPC), an organisation of local business interests and wind proponents formed in December. The group boasts of the "naturally powerful" local wind regime and is mobilising the public to overcome the inertia of the Alberta government. It has traditionally favoured the politically powerful and rich provincial fossil fuel industry.

The uplifting rally, which began with the Canadian anthem, featured the "raging grannies," a group of ageing activists which have traditionally taken on social causes in Alberta. The grannies performed several amusing and poignant songs created for the occasion. Long time wind industry observer, Paul Gipe of California, admits to being moved by the intense atmosphere of the rally. "In my two decades of doing wind, I've never seen anything like it," he comments, likening the mood in a rural region losing its population and commerce to the American "prairie populism" of old -- only this time wind is the catalyst. "This could be the beginning of a true grass roots movement for wind energy," he adds.

NPPC organisers include Pincher Creek wind power developer Dale Johnson, president of Wind Power Inc (WPI), which is promoting the huge wind project along with Enercon GmbH of Germany and York WindPower of Montreal. Johnson masterminded the nearby Cowley Ridge wind plant, which is Canada's largest, at 18.9 MW with 52 Kenetech turbines.

The international wind development group is proposing an Enercon turbine manufacturing plant near Pincher Creek to produce 1400 turbines, or 700 MW of capacity for local wind farms, with a total investment of some $5.5 billion over 30 years. But first the group requires a political commitment from the Albertan government guaranteeing purchase of the wind power output at a price which takes into account the cost of pollution from the fossil sources that the wind will displace.

The manufacturing plant would be owned by Enercon and the wind plant by York WindPower. Some 72% of the manufacturing facility's turbine output would be exported to the US and elsewhere in the West. According to its proponents, the project could create 500 direct and 1900 indirect jobs in southwest Alberta, where wind resources are among the best in the world and employment in the natural gas and oil industry is in decline.

But in its efforts to gain government support, the proposal is facing a negative advertising campaign from the province's fossil fuel lobby. Advertisements in Alberta newspapers about the time of the rally by the "Group of Concerned Conservative Taxpayers," stated: "We want to see economic development and new jobs created, but subsidising this wind project is not the right way." According to the Pincher Creek Echo newspaper, the ads were bought by Scobey Hartley, a Calgary oil and gas businessman closely tied to the provincial premier, Ralph Klein.

The government is already negatively inclined, says Johnson, pointing out that a task force it struck last year to assess the Pincher Creek proposal is now under the influence of ministers who favour fossil fuel. Johnson claims he and several other stakeholders have been dropped from membership in favour of a political clique beholden to the fossil fuel industry.

A struggle between the project proponents and government is underway behind the scenes, says Johnson. The government claims the project would be subsidised, while proponents seek full cost accounting of the provincial energy resources, which would give the economic edge to wind power over fossil fuel.

Not subsidised

The project proponents hotly deny they are seeking subsidies. "All we want is a level playing field which takes into account total costs, including the considerable subsidies to the fossil fuel industry and its environmental and social costs," says Johnson. "Financing will be arranged by the proponents. No government funding or financial incentive is sought," states the proposal document. However, "in order for the wind power plants to be feasible, York requires a 25 year power purchase contract at a price of not less than C$0.054/kWh." This rate would escalate annually with the Alberta price index. Although higher than the average power pool price, the proponents stress it is not a subsidy, pointing out that pool prices are based on paid for and depreciated generation sources.

"There are absolutely no subsidies associated with the Pincher Creek wind power initiative, none whatsoever É instead a perceived higher rate for a cleaner, better product has incorrectly been termed a subsidy," says Roy Davidson of the Economic Development Board of Pincher Creek (EDB), which is also supporting the project.

The wind development group is demanding legislation under the Electric Utilities Act (EUA) to guarantee a pricing mechanism for the electricity produced. An additional option, suggested by the EDB, is to make wind a preferred power source. The group points out that the external costs of coal power range from C$0.008 to C$0.138/kWh. Instead of adding this to the wind payments, they propose a green power credit. "We are looking at crediting the [avoided] emissions, banking the emission credits until they are worth something in 18 to 24 months," says Johnson. "They'll become tradable emission commodities, and they'll be very valuable. Then we want them sold on the market, with those credits given back to the consumer in the form of reduced electricity bills." Some 96% of Alberta's electricity is produced by burning heavily subsidised fossil fuel.

Rally organisers distributed hundreds of postcards for mailing to members of the Alberta legislature, asking the question: "Will you [as a member of the government] commit to pass legislation to ensure that, effective immediately, 50% of new or replacement electrical generation comes from non-polluting sources?" Several thousand citizens have already signed a petition in support of the project which is also supported by environmental groups, including the influential Pembina Institute in Alberta, and the Sierra Club of Canada.

The Echo newspaper also threw its support behind the wind proposal: "Pincher Creek sits in the middle of an Amazon River of wind, never-ending and always flowing É No reserve of coal, oil or gas is limitless. One day the Shell Waterton plant will shut down completely because there is no more gas. When that happens, we still have the wind. The rushes of air that flow through the Crowsnest Pass have done so since the birth of the Rocky Mountains," it wrote in a leading article. "If we each continue to back the march toward green energy, we will secure jobs and prosperity for children of Pincher Creek's future, and help prolong the life of our planet. Learn all you can about the wind and its potential and fight for the future every chance you get."

Canadian and international environmentalist Maurice Strong endorsed the project, lending his "whole-hearted support and encouragement to the Pincher Creek community effort." And a new poll by one of the provincial investor owned utilities, Alberta Power, reveals that 72% of Albertans surveyed are willing to pay more for green power -- although a green pricing policy is opposed by the proponents of the wind project. They argue that consumers should not be expected to pay more for a superior product while at the same time subsidising fossil fuel.

The success or failure of the efforts of NPPC and its intense lobbying efforts now await the outcome of the March election, where political change is possible. Eradicating the provincial debt is Ralph Klein's priority, and for that he needs robust income from Alberta's fossil fuel industry. Unlike Klein's Progressive Conservative government, the opposition Alberta Liberal Party believes "our natural resources must be developed in a sustainable way," and has committed to "aggressively pursue a wind and solar power programme to make Alberta a leader in commercialising renewable sources of energy."

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