Economic and policy challenges

Meeting against a backdrop of wildly swinging stock prices, tightening credit markets and slumping oil and gas prices, delegates to Canada's annual wind power conference (main story) found discussion of pressing economic worries spilling over into the long term focus of the event. "There is a short term elephant in the room, which is: who is going to be able to raise the money to do some of these projects? This is a very tough time in terms of both debt and equity," said BC Hydro's Bob Elton.

Canadian Hydro narrowly missed being caught in the crunch, closing two debt financings in June worth more than C$700 million that are earmarked, in part, for the construction of two wind projects and the acquisition of another. "We feel quite blessed having put those facilities in place before this mess arrived. I'm not sure where we'd be if we had waited two or three months," said Canadian Hydro CEO John Keating.

There are also potential pitfalls on the policy side, with worries about the federal ecoEnergy program and its C$0.01 a kilowatt hour subsidy for wind. "You want to get the ecoEnergy program renewed, and every time I heard that this week I thought how the Harper government is looking at cutting spending to keep its budget deficit from going to C$10 billion," Shawn McCarthy, a business correspondent with the Globe and Mail, one of Canada's national newspapers, told delegates.

The conventional wisdom is that when there is an economic downturn, the environment falls off the table as an issue, added McCarthy, although political necessity may intervene there as well, with president elect Barack Obama looking to change the direction of US energy and climate policy. "Ottawa will have to respond if the climate change agenda is driven aggressively out of Washington -- and it will have to be seen to be responding," McCarthy said.

At the provincial level, there is a danger that policy makers could reconsider commitments to new renewable supply in the face of declining load growth, said Elton. "We've been through this before and what we all hope for from our leaders is that we keep the focus on the long term."

For the most part, though, industry players appeared optimistic that the financial crisis will not divert the market off its growth trajectory for too long. "There might be some slow down over the next twelve or fifteen months, given what is happening south of the border. But in spite of that we are not slowing down," said GE Energy's Simon Olivier.

He speculated that the pull back expected in the US with the decline in the ability of companies to monetise wind power's federal production tax credit tax could help Canada capture the attention of investors. "Right now in Canada I think there is more stability and that might create a window of opportunity to tell the world to come to Canada. It's a great market."