Eighty years ago, the landscape of Western Canada was dotted with windmills, primitive devices mainly used to pump water out of the ground.
If Darryl Jessie gets his way, that vista would be recreated in the coming years, with small power-generating wind turbines popping up on just about every farm.
Mr. Jessie's company, Raum Energy Inc., is one the many innovative firms that make up Canada's "small wind" sector – companies that make turbines that are minuscule compared to the towering giants going up in huge wind farms around the world.
While a large turbine can generate as much as 7 megawatts of electricity – enough for up to 5,000 homes – the smaller windmills put out only a tiny fraction of that amount, often just sufficient to partly power a single household or business.
While the output is relatively small, the market potential is huge. Many companies are finding success selling into regions where power is more expensive, or to parts of developing countries where there may be no power grid at all. At the same time, it's a field where Canada leads, thanks to the country's strong engineering skills and the entrepreneurial drive of many small operators.
Mr. Jessie's company, based in Saskatoon, makes among the smallest turbines, with two models generating 1.5 and 3.5 kilowatts of power. Highly efficient, these models take little maintenance and can be erected using just a tractor or truck to pull the tower into place. Once installed, they supplement what comes from the electricity grid, and when the wind power isn't needed by the farmer or business owner, it can be sold back to the utility through the grid.
"There are 40,000 family farms in Saskatchewan," and no reason each of them cannot have a windmill, Mr. Jessie said. Distributing power generation among millions of different sites in North America could help solve the continent's power needs while cleaning up the environment, he said. "The market potential is massive."
While Canada is a leader in the small-wind business, most of the turbines the industry makes is currently exported. According to figures compiled last year by the Canadian Wind Energy Association, Canadian companies now represent more than half of the world's manufacturers of turbines in the 30 to 100 kilowatt range. But about 87 per cent of the sales of companies making small turbines is exported.
The main reason for that, Mr. Jessie said, is that power rates are still so low in Canada that in most cases small wind turbines can't compete with the cheap power generated by utilities. Incentive programs in Ontario and Nova Scotia are helping, but small turbines won't likely go mainstream in Canada until power rates rise sharply – something Mr. Jessie expects to happen over the next decade.
The small-scale wind market is ripe for innovation by entrepreneurs, said David Wood, a professor at the Schulich School of Engineering at the University of Calgary who specializes in renewable energy. There isn't nearly as much innovation going on with large turbines, he said, because they now represent a mature technology that has settled on a single design. "Virtually all large wind turbines are three-bladed, upwind, horizontal axis machines," he said.
The key areas where technical progress is being made on small turbines is on blade construction and the design of the electrical controls which convert generated power to usable current, Prof. Wood said. But there needs to be more advances in these areas to make small turbines competitive with other sources of electricity – including solar power, where costs are falling dramatically. If this is not done, the small turbine sector could be confined to niche markets.
Canadian companies have, indeed, come up with a number of novel approaches in the design of wind turbines.
Toronto's WhalePower Corp. has created a turbine blade that has a series of bumps along the leading edge of the blade, like those on a whale's fin, which creates greater lift and generates less drag.
Vbine Energy of Moosomin, Sask., sells a quiet, efficient vertical axis turbine, originally designed to attach to chimneys, which can be mounted on urban buildings or telecommunications towers.
Toronto's Wind Simplicity Inc. sells a very quiet small turbine with peanut-shaped blades it calls Windancer, which is ideal for low-wind applications closer to the ground.
One of Canada's most successful small-wind companies has even carved out its niche with relatively old technology. Jonathan Barry, president of Seaforth Energy Inc. in Dartmouth, N.S., said his company's AOC 15/50 turbine, developed in the early 1990s, is successful because it is proven technology. It has been installed all around the world, and its performance and characteristics are well known.
"Our turbine is long in the tooth....[but]we know it extremely well and how it is going to run, and that is a lot of the battle in our business," he said.
Still, Seaforth understands the need to innovate. It has a research project under way to improve the power output of the AOC machine at lower wind speeds, by lengthening the blades. The key is to "keep the good things about the design, its structure and reliability," Mr. Barry said, while improving its performance.
Mr. Barry said Canada's disproportionate strength in small wind is remarkable given that there is little government support for the sector.