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Big chunks of coal on the beach around Union Bay, B.C., May 25, 2011. Mounds of coal remain decades after the mining industry left Buckley Bay. (JOHN LEHMANN/JOHN LEHMANN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Big chunks of coal on the beach around Union Bay, B.C., May 25, 2011. Mounds of coal remain decades after the mining industry left Buckley Bay. (JOHN LEHMANN/JOHN LEHMANN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

Time to lead

Can coal come clean or is wind the future? Add to ...

It was seven years ago that Ontario farmer Bruce Ribey first considered the notion: Would he allow wind-power turbines to be built on his land?

There’d be money in it, but wind power was largely uncharted territory for Mr. Ribey and his neighbours near the shores of Lake Huron. His family worried about noise, wildlife welfare and health impacts.

All that was outweighed, however, by another factor – Mr. Ribey’s nephew has asthma and suffered on the smoggiest of Ontario’s summer days. As the province looked to ditch coal power and clean its skies, Mr. Ribey wanted to be a part of it. Three 80-metre-high turbines now stand on his farm.

“I’m not naive enough to think one windmill or one wind farm is going to change the atmosphere,” said Mr. Ribey, 43, a father of three. “We just kind of liked the overall idea of what wind power was.”

Ontario is leading the country in its effort to move away from coal power, which produces more greenhouse-gas emissions than any other power source. In turn, it has largely turned to wind.

The problem with wind, however, is that it’s unreliable and often requires expensive upgrades in transmission infrastructure. Some question whether it causes health impacts or kills scores of birds and bats. (Academics say there’s little evidence of either, while Mr. Ribey has noticed only occasional noise.)

Nonetheless, wind power is affordable and emissions-free, so Ontario has turned to it by offering a high price to power companies that produce it. “It’s as much about political will as it is economics,” said Scott Smith, vice-president of policy at the Canadian Wind Energy Association.

Meanwhile, coal is cheap, abundant and reliable, so five other provinces still use it, none more than Alberta. Instead of doing away with coal, Alberta is trying to limit its environmental impact.

Its most ambitious project is a Swan Hill Synfuels power plant, set to open in late 2015, that will use “in-situ coal gasification.” The process liquefies coal deep underground before burning it for energy – the effect being coal-like reliability and affordability with much lower emissions.

Alberta’s government contributed $285-million to get the plant off the ground. Its emissions will meet federal standards released last month.

“What we really have is a better way to start with coal and make better use of the energy in the coal,” said Doug Shaigec, president of Swan Hills Synfuels. He rejected criticism that coal is too dirty a fuel.

“I think that’s a bit of a narrow statement. I’d invite the [critics]to consider projects like ours. We truly are a demonstration of a new and considerably cleaner way to make use of coal.”

The wind-energy sector, meanwhile, has exploded across Canada – jumping from 137 megawatts in 2000 to 4,611 megawatts by June of this year, enough to power more than a million homes. A third of it is in Ontario, a sixth in Alberta. Much of the considerable future growth is planned in Ontario.

Wind turbines, however, still make up just a fraction of capacity and must be offset by backup power sources in case the wind isn’t blowing. Alberta uses coal while Ontario uses nuclear and hydro.

Industry is split on whether wind power still requires government subsidies. “Really, in our view, the funding isn’t necessary any more,” said Lindsey Moen, a spokeswoman for TransAlta, which owns roughly a third of Canada’s wind-power capacity.

However, executives at ENMAX, which owns one of Alberta’s largest wind farms, and Enbridge, which owns the turbines on Mr. Ribey’s farm, disagree.

“I think the reality is the renewables business does require subsidy at this point in time,” said Al Monaco, Enbridge’s president of gas pipelines, green energy and international. His company focuses on Ontario wind farms because of the availability of transmission lines, long-term contracts, strong wind and a lucrative price paid by Ontario for wind energy.

“First and foremost, the economics have to be there for us,” he said. “We’re not going to invest for the public-relations notoriety of being green, but it is a benefit.”

Consumers also demand greener energy. The City of Calgary buys all the wind power ENMAX can provide in coal-dominated Alberta. However, the company still needs natural-gas plants to ensure power is available.

“You really can’t look at the wind farm in isolation, because the customer will not sign a contract saying they’ll only use power when the wind’s blowing,” said Charles Ruigrok, ENMAX interim chief executive officer. “Is [wind]ready for prime time? We’re getting closer.”

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