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At the windswept northwestern corner of Canada's smallest province, there is a lesson to be learned about how to make Canadian business more innovative.

Here, where a sharp point of Prince Edward Island juts into the Gulf of St Lawrence, nasty weather and a non-profit agency work together to help small companies make sure their cutting-edge technology functions in the real world.

The Wind Energy Institute of Canada (WEICan), financially supported by the federal and PEI governments, provides research, test and certification services for developers of small turbines that want to try out their equipment in the toughest of environmental conditions.

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In the fields surrounding the institute's squat two-storey building - near the tip of a narrow peninsula where crashing waves hammer the bright red PEI coastline - small turbines of various sizes, shapes and heights spin in the roaring wind, their characteristics, power output and noise being measured and analyzed.

These small windmills seem tiny by comparison to the nearby array of huge Danish-made turbines that are churning out power for the PEI power grid. But the smaller devices - designed for use by farmers, individual businesses or in remote locations - represent an important niche for Canadian firms across the country.

WEICan's role is "vitally important" for companies that design innovative turbine designs, said Stephen Dewar, director of research and development at WhalePower Corp., a Toronto company that has developed a novel turbine blade with bumps along its outer surface, like the jagged edge of a whale's fin. The WhalePower blades were given their first test in a real-world setting at the WEICan site.

With so many companies claiming breakthroughs in the green technology sector, there is intense skepticism about what really is innovative technology, Mr. Dewar said. So the independent analysis prepared by an organization such as WEICan is key to proving that a development like the WhalePower blade really is a substantial advance.

"Getting credible, solidly documented evidence is a very important component of your R&D program going forward, and in reassuring your investors you are not nuts," Mr. Dewar said. "I can't tell you how much [WEICan's data] boosted our credibility when it came back ... that these blades walked through everything from serious ice storms to you name it."

It is vital to demonstrate how equipment can work in extreme weather conditions, he said, "because that's the real-world traffic that these toys are going to have to play in."

Indeed, one of the advantages of the test site's location at PEI's tip is the huge range of weather conditions, said WEICan chief executive officer Scott Harper. In addition to the intense and almost constant winds, "we offer a salt spray environment, and it's pretty damn cold sometimes."

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At the same time, WEICan's experienced staff provide valuable feedback so companies can tweak their turbines, improve components and generally make them work better.

The reports the agency produces are used by the companies in their dealings with governments, shareholders, potential investors and certifying bodies or regulators, who increasingly want to see independent data on power output and performance. That is now a crucial part of the process of innovation, Mr. Harper said.

WEICan's work is affordable for small private companies, he said, because funding from the federal and provincial governments pays for the infrastructure costs and the training of personnel. Clients getting test work done pay an hourly rate that covers the agency's operating costs.

While Canada was once considered a world leader in developing small wind turbines, that reputation has diminished somewhat in recent years, Mr. Harper said - partly because low domestic energy prices reduced the pressure to innovate. Still, there is an opportunity to use agencies such as WEICan to help gain back Canada's leadership role, he said.

The small-turbine business has enormous potential, said Darryl Jessie, CEO of Raum Energy Inc. in Saskatoon and one of WEICan's current clients. Raum is developing turbines for rural residences and small commercial applications.

There are huge opportunities for Canada to become a leader in this sector, as governments and individuals now recognize the value of distributed generation - producing electricity at the same location where it is being used - Mr. Jessie said.

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Canada could also be a big player in developing hybrid wind-diesel systems for remote and Arctic locations, he said.

But if the small wind industry is going to grow, "it is incredibly important that we keep a functioning national small-turbine test facility," he said. "If we're going to be serious about renewables and serious about small wind, it's absolutely critical."


Catching (and storing) the wind

The Wind Energy Institute of Canada's site in Prince Edward Island doesn't simply test new designs of small wind turbines. It is also the location for an innovative test of a hydrogen generating plant, where electricity produced by wind turbines is used to create hydrogen (by splitting water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen).

The crucial chemical reaction take places in a small industrial building on the site, and the hydrogen it produces is stored in tanks outside. Potentially, at remote sites off the power grid, these kinds of systems could generate hydrogen when the wind is blowing and use the fuel (mixed with diesel) in a generator when conditions are calm.

WEICan is now preparing for a much bigger test of wind power storage, after receiving a five-year, $12-million grant from the federal government to build a cluster of large turbines and a large-scale storage system.

The idea, said WEICan chief executive officer Scott Harper, is to understand what happens when wind power is stored for milliseconds, minutes, hours or days, modelling how much power is lost in the process. "We want to try it every way possible," he said.

Storage is a key issue in an environment such as PEI, where a relatively high proportion of the province's electricity is generated from wind. Storage could help level out the intermittent power production.

WEICan will soon decide which turbines it will buy for the storage test, and they will be installed next summer, Mr. Harper said. The full-scale test will be up and running in 2011.

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