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Professor David Johnson, left, and his research team will test a wind turbine near the University of Waterloo campus, then apply what they learn to another turbine installed in a remote Northern Ontario community.

Glenn Lowson/The Globe and Mail

This is part of a series looking at infrastructure projects designed to create economic opportunities in the North.

On a breezy hill, a 10-minute drive from the University of Waterloo, a 30-metre-high wind turbine spins, adding an almost negligible amount of electricity to the local power grid. But what the sleek, white monolith does for the Kitchener-Waterloo region matters a lot less than what it means for the future of Canada's most isolated citizens.

A team of Waterloo academics is regularly testing and modifying the turbine to make it more quiet, efficient and capable of generating power with minimal oversight. It's a twin of one that began generating clean energy in July for the Kasabonika Lake First Nation, a remote, diesel-powered community some 600 kilometres north of Thunder Bay.

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The researchers will take the lessons they learn at home directly to Kasabonika, regularly modifying the community's new turbine to make it more efficient. It's an early but crucial step forward to make wind a viable option to offset – and perhaps, some day, help replace – the diesel dependency of Canada's remote, northern communities, offering a chance for future infrastructure investment that could boost their sustainability for generations.

Canadian wind farms have a generating capacity of 7,000 megawatts, with Ontario leading the pack at 2,400 MW, according to the Canadian Wind Energy Association (CanWEA). In contrast, the Kasabonika turbine maxes at 30 kilowatts; a thousand kilowatts make a megawatt, meaning this particular turbine is barely a drop in the bucket of available wind power in Ontario.

But this math belies the scale of the small, remote grids that power much of the North. Of Canada's 292 remote communities, 176 are fuelled by diesel, according to a 2011 paper released by Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada and Natural Resources Canada.

The cost of the fossil fuel can vary wildly, depending on the supplier and how it gets to the community, reaching about $1.20 a litre to fly to Kasabonika by plane. "We're at the mercy of supply markets," says Mitchell Diabo, the community's project manager. And so the community is rallying behind wind projects.

"The pricing is such that it's easy to have a larger impact there, where the [cost of] energy is much, much higher than it is in southern Canada," says David Johnson, who leads the University of Waterloo's Wind Energy Research Group as an associate professor of mechanical and mechatronics engineering.

Combined with three 10-kw 1990s-era turbines that were recently refurbished, the research windmill brings the total capacity for wind generation to 60 kw at Kasabonika, whose diesel plant has a capacity of 1 MW. At the wind's peak, the turbines can offset diesel usage as much as 15 per cent in the summer and 5 per cent in the winter, according to Ontario Hydro One Remote Communities. That assumes ideal conditions, but it's a start – a jumping-off point to make the turbines work better.

"If you reduce diesel consumption, you'll benefit both financially and environmentally speaking," says Tom Levy, CanWEA's director of technical and utility affairs. More efficient and accessible wind energy, he says, "could have a substantial impact for local economies."

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Enter Dr. Johnson's team. They've spent the past year and a half fitting the twin turbine with various modifications to make it more efficient, reliable and quiet. "We're throwing everything that's state-of-the-art at the turbine to understand its behaviour," he says.

One graduate student, Nicholas Tam, has built a system from simple consumer electronics at the base of the Waterloo turbine that will let the team monitor the turbine remotely via laptop. Through it, they can keep watch on everything from noise levels to precise load on the blades at any given time while monitoring its efficiency, tweaking as necessary.

Another researcher, master's candidate Nigel Swytink-Binnema, has attached tufts of yarn to the turbine blades in a first-of-its-kind study to test their efficiency. Using a weatherproof GoPro camera mounted at the inner end of the blade, he has been monitoring the tufts' movement.

In an ideal situation, they should simply bend in the wind's direction, but Mr. Swytink-Binnema is looking at anomalies in their movement along the blade, tracing lines from each video frame to look for patterns. This will help the researchers more accurately assess the blades' design, potentially providing a case to change their shape or angle to make the turbine generate power more efficiently and reliably.

The team plans to travel to Kasabonika once a year to modify the turbine there with the lessons they learn in Waterloo. But it's not an easy trip: Kasabonika can be reached only by small plane, or by temporary ice roads during the winter.

That also happens to be the main reason the team is using a 30-kw turbine – Guelph, Ont.'s Wenvor Technologies designed it to be transportable with a single truck and raised with three people and a winch. More powerful turbines would both be too loud and too cumbersome to deliver to the community.

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"Ideally, we're hoping that ... the thing could pretty much operate by itself, once it's tweaked and optimized," Dr. Johnson says. The community would be able to take care of it from there, he says. "It'd be like changing the oil in your car."

The residents of Kasabonika Lake are enthusiastic about the wind project. Even though it's only a small addition to their grid, it will make the community more sustainable over time. "It's a long-term response to an immediate problem," Mr. Diabo says. "It's a long way from putting any dent in our demand, but it's research and development, and it may help a lot of remote communities like us across Canada."

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