Market deregulation sparks wind rush -- Applications for 200 MW take Alberta by surprise

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Four wind power developers in Canada are waiting to hear the outcome of applications to build a combined total of 200 MW of wind farms in southern Alberta. Councillors from the Municipal District of Pincher Creek are scheduled to rule on all four applications at a single hearing before the end of this month. If all go ahead as planned, the projects will more than double Canada's current installed capacity of 140 MW.

"I don't know what's attracting them to southern Alberta other than the wind itself. We have more wind than we know what to do with," says Pincher Creek development officer Laurie Preszlak, leafing through documents at the municipal district office to find details of the applications. "It's not bad when you have only one at a time," she says, "But when you get four of them in it's a little hard keeping them all straight."

On Preszlak's desk are applications from Canadian Hydro Developers and Vision Quest Windelectric, two Calgary-based companies with plans to expand wind farms already operating in the area, and from newcomers Benign Energy Canada and Wind Power Inc.

Newcomers, however, is a relative term. While neither of these last two companies owns utility scale wind capacity, Wind Power Inc, based in Pincher Creek, has been part of the Canadian industry since 1983 and is a distributor of German-made Enercon turbines. Calgary-based Benign Energy, while new to the country's renewables community, is partnered with Ireland's B9 Energy Services, which has significant wind energy assets and development experience in Ireland.

Massive demand

Benign president Allan Kettles is not prepared to comment on how his wind power will be marketed, but plans to build 35 to 42 turbines in the 1.3 MW to 1.5 MW range and hopes to be producing power by the end of the year. "I think three things are driving this," says Kettles, explaining the economics of wind have improved to the point where projects like his can go ahead. "There's a massive demand for electricity in North America as a whole. There's an increased demand in Alberta, and there's the deregulation scenario."

Alberta is one of two Canadian provinces where independent power producers and marketers are wheeling and dealing in an emerging, deregulated power market. The restructuring process began in 1995 and moved to full retail competition January 1, during which time power producers have been cautious about investing in new plants while the need for capacity has grown. Because electricity supply is now tight to demand, prices are high.

High prices

Power prices are high, too, because of the inflated price of natural gas, fuel for the power producers that account for the vast majority of new generation. Canadian Hydro president John Keating says he doesn't have a firm customer for the 20 MW he is planning to add to his 21 MW Cowley Ridge wind plant by the fall. While he is looking for customers, and is promoting the environmental benefits of wind, Keating believes that, "If you build it they will come." Meantime, he is moving ahead with the expansion based on the Alberta Power Pool spot market price, which averaged C$133/MWh last year.

Near Keating's Pincher Creek plant are Vision Quest's 13 MW of wind facilities. Vision Quest (VQ) may be close to Canadian Hydro geographically, but is distant in its approach to financing its 29 MW expansion, half of which is scheduled to come on-line this year and half in 2002. The development will be supported by more than one customer, which VQ's managing director, Fred Gallagher, will not name. "Markets go up and markets go down, and one can't just base things on today's price, especially when you are talking about major capital investment," he says.

utilities out of the way

Gallagher, however, is quick to concur with Keating and Kettles that deregulation is playing a role in the Alberta wind rush. "The only way markets are going to be able to receive green energy is if the utilities get out of the way and allow people to install new wind energy facilities on the grid," says Gallagher, who is also president of the Canadian Wind Energy Association. "Access to the market and deregulation are the reasons Alberta is the place where it's happening."

As yet, none of the four companies have formally announced their plans. Gallagher points out the applications are a sign of "pre-activity," with developers making sure they are ready to deliver power when the market is ready to take it.

Wind Power Inc president Dale Johnson says his biggest challenge is not customers, but transmission facilities in the Pincher Creek area. While he, too, will not say who is buying his wind energy, Wind Power Inc has applied to install 56, 1.8 MW turbines and hopes to be on-line with some portion of the total before the end of the year, with completion in 2002.

Transmission hurdle

The present transmission capacity in the area, however, cannot accommodate all the projects before the Alberta Energy and Utilities Board, says Johnson. "I don't know how many applications are before the board now or how big they all are," he says. Depending on the queue, and on how the board evaluates and assesses applications, it may see fit to award transmission capacity to some of the projects and not to others, he speculates.

"I was surprised to hear that there are four," says Johnson, "and certainly four all at the same time. But, you know, opportunities are opening for wind. It's a generation resource that's in demand."

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