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(ROBIN LOZNAK)
(ROBIN LOZNAK)

Energy

A quiet giant moves in Add to ...

A massive Florida-based electric company is emerging as a key player in Canada's burgeoning wind power market.

FPL Group, through its NextEra Energy Resources renewable energy arm, is quietly building up a portfolio of wind farms across the country, and has major expansion plans, particularly in Ontario, where it is drawn by a "feed-in tariff" policy guaranteeing prices and long-term contracts for green power.

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NextEra is already the biggest wind energy producer in the United States, and the second-largest in the world. It has a huge portfolio of more than 60 wind farms that generate 7,500 megawatts of power - about one-fifth of U.S. total wind production. That's more than double the total wind capacity from all turbines in Canada.

NextEra made a modest move across the border three years ago, setting up an office in Burlington, Ont., staffed by about half-a-dozen people. Then, in 2008, it bought two existing Canadian wind farms from Creststreet Power & Income Fund: the 17-turbine Pubnico Point project near Yarmouth, N.S., and the 30-turbine Mount Copper project near Murdochville in the Gaspé region of Quebec.

Now the company is developing more wind farms from scratch, with the goal of owning a portfolio of projects concentrated in Quebec, Ontario and Western Canada. It is working through the final permit and approvals process on several sites, and hopes to get shovels in the ground on some of them this summer.

Yet the firm has almost no profile in Canada, and is even quiet about operations in its home country. "We like to get 1 per cent of the ink and 20 to 30 per cent of the market," says Mike O'Sullivan, NextEra's senior vice-president of development.

NextEra is a sister company to FPL's other division, Florida Power and Light, a traditional, staid, utility that generates electricity from natural gas, coal, oil and nuclear plants for that state's residents. But NextEra is more adventurous, with expanding wind, solar, hydro, natural gas, and nuclear facilities in 25 states, and a desire to be a big player in Canada, particularly in Ontario.

The new Ontario "feed-in tariff," that pays a generous, guaranteed price for power generated by wind plants, has made the province an attractive target for NextEra, Mr. O'Sullivan said. "Ontario will get at least 80 per cent of our attention."

But the expansion will be in modest steps, building mid-sized winds farms one at a time over several years.

Mr. O'Sullivan, based in NextEra's Juno Beach, Fla., head office, likes to use a baseball analogy to describe the firm's approach. "We show up every day and try to hit singles and doubles, and over time we'll put a lot of runs up on the board," he said. "Our goal in Ontario is to do 100 megawatts here and 200 megawatts there, and over time hopefully that adds up to a lot of megawatts."

He won't disclose specific spending intentions, but "we're eager to deploy several hundred million dollars, if not more, in each of the coming years." That would translate into roughly 100 to 300 megawatts of new wind farms per year, making the company a substantial force in a province that currently has about 1,200 megawatts of wind power in operation. The company hopes to break ground on its first Ontario projects this summer.

Outside of Ontario, NextEra has projects in "advanced development" in Alberta, Mr. O'Sullivan said, and is looking at possible sites in Quebec, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.

NextEra will also consider buying up other developers' assets if they become available, he said.

FPL's deep pockets give NextEra a leg up on many other developers, because finding financing for its new wind farms is never in question. "They obviously bring a ton of capital to invest in projects," said Mike Crawley, president of rival wind developer International Power Canada Inc. "They are a serious player."

Mr. Crawley said NextEra has hired Canadians and worked very hard to understand the intricacies of the Canadian wind market. "They've caught up and developed the same kind of knowledge base that domestic players have," he said. "I think they will be one of the significant players over the long term."

Thomas Schneider, president of wind developer Schneider Power Inc., said NextEra's initial approach to the Canadian industry was somewhat brash and aggressive, but they have toned things down recently. Still, he said, the company is "unmatched in its ability to realize a project and bring it to fruition."

NextEra won't reveal a complete list of its development sites in Ontario or elsewhere in Canada. But it is known to be working on several locations in southwestern Ontario. In Alberta, its plans include a 54-turbine farm northeast of Calgary.

Like those of other wind developers, some of NextEra's projects have drawn fire from local opponents who are concerned about property values, noise, and health effects from turbines. The company has conducted public meetings for residents who live near some of its proposed sites; some have been highly confrontational.

For those opposed to wind farms, NextEra is just another large developer reading from the same script. Lorrie Gillis, a spokesperson for a lobby group called Wind Concerns Ontario, said the firm gave "the usual non-response" to questions about potential health issues, at a recent public meeting in Durham, Ont. Ms. Gillis and other activists want more studies to be done on potential health effects from wind farms.

Mr. O'Sullivan said NextEra's experience is that the farther wind farms are situated from big cities, the less opposition there is from local populations. Generally, he said, finding nearby transmission lines is a bigger issue.

"There's a lot of land in Ontario to build wind farms," he said. "If transmission and interconnection are solved, finding suitable landowners will occur naturally."

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NextEra at a glance:

60 wind farms generating 7,500 megawatts

13 natural gas plants generating 6,600 megawatts

3 nuclear plants generating 2,500 megawatts

3 oil-burning plants generating 850 megawatts

1 hydroelectric plant generating 360 megawatts

7 solar farms generating147 megawatts

 

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