Alberta and Saskatchewan are the new frontier for Canada's renewable energy industry, as the epicentre of green-power development shifts west.
Until now, the largest concentration of renewable-energy development has been in Ontario, where the controversial green-energy policies of the Liberal provincial government effectively subsidized new wind and solar projects. But in the face of political pressure over electricity prices, and a glut of power production, the province is cutting back. In September, it killed off a promised round of procurement of new green electricity, deeply disappointing those in the industry who were hoping to bid on the projects.
In Alberta and Saskatchewan, the opposite is happening. Prompted by growing power demand and a desire to cut greenhouse gases, the two provinces are lighting a fire under green-energy development. Alberta plans to double the amount of power it gets from green sources, getting 30 per cent of its electricity from renewables by 2030 – and it is prepared to subsidize companies to do so. In Saskatchewan, the goal is even higher: 50 per cent renewables by 2030.
Between the two provinces, there could be as much as 7,000 megawatts of new renewable-energy supply over the next 15 years. Renewable-energy developers, equipment makers and consultants see the writing on the wall and are turning their attention west.
"It is clear that the focus of Canada's wind-energy industry is shifting westward," said Robert Hornung, president of the Canadian Wind Energy Association (CanWea). Companies are not abandoning any other province, he noted, but there is a "reallocation of resources" to the west – where there are already a substantial number of wind farms in place thanks to the powerful winds blowing across the prairies.
The same shift is happening with the solar sector, in which the vast majority of projects are currently in Ontario because of its early generous support for solar development. The plans in Alberta and Saskatchewan give solar developers "an alternative, and quite a significant opportunity," said John Gorman, president of the Canadian Solar Industries Association (CanSia).
Mr. Gorman noted that the prairies have by far the best solar resource in the country – the most cloud-free daylight. Essentially, "there is 20 to 25 per cent more fuel – solar radiance – than in Ontario," he said. Because of this, and the fact that solar panel costs have dropped sharply in recent years, solar developers will be able to offer their power at "jaw-dropping" low prices, he said.
Companies in the Canadian wind and solar sector say they are already seeing activity heat up in the West, as Alberta and Saskatchewan gear up to accept bids for new projects. "In Eastern Canada, we just had a bit of a downer [with] the cancellation of the procurement in Ontario," said Peter Clibbon, vice-president of development at Renewable Energy Systems Canada Inc., which builds and operates wind and solar farms. "All of a sudden, the shift is now to the west in a very big way."
Mr. Clibbon said his company still has a lot of work under way in Ontario and Quebec as projects already in the pipeline in those provinces move to fruition. In Alberta and Saskatchewan, new projects won't likely break ground until 2019, so the shift will not happen overnight.
Dillon Consulting, a national engineering and design firm, is also seeing the majority of investment in green energy move to the west, said Michael Enright, who runs the company's renewable-sector business.
Dillon helps wind and solar developers evaluate potential projects and then acquire permits and approvals at the early stages, and that work is gearing up in the west as it declines in Ontario, Mr. Enright said. "We have been building internal teams out west," and he expects there will be more people moving to Alberta and Saskatchewan and more new hires in those locations.
Quebec-based firms are also eyeing a shift to the west. Pesca Environnement, an environmental consulting firm based in Carleton-sur-Mer on the south side of the Gaspé peninsula, helps companies in the province deal with environmental and social issues when they are planning wind farms. "In Quebec, it is a bit slower at this time," chief executive officer Marjolaine Castonguay said, so the timing is good to look at expansion in Alberta and Saskatchewan.
Pesca has set up a joint venture in Alberta with another small Quebec environmental consulting firm, and will start staffing up in January. Ms. Castonguay said her objective is to have 50 per cent of the company's business in the west within a decade.
At Siemens Canada, the Canadian arm of the German industrial conglomerate Siemens AG, it would be difficult to move its core operation to the west. The company has built a huge manufacturing plant in Tillsonburg, Ont., where hundreds of workers mould, bake and trim giant wind turbine blades, which are shipped to the wind farms its partners are building in Canada and beyond.
Still, said David Hickey, Siemens head of wind for Canada, the company is looking to send more blades west because that is where the action will be. "Clearly the opportunities for the industry are out in Alberta and Saskatchewan. That's a clear shift of focus for everybody."
Ontario's initial green-energy plan – which effectively subsidized wind, solar and other technologies, and forced developers to buy components and services in the province – was the "kickstarter" for the factory, Mr. Hickey said. But the company always planned to send the blades farther afield, including to the United States and Europe. Blades going to western Canada would be sent by truck or rail.
Going forward, "we expect to have significant presence in Alberta," he said, once the volume of business gets to the level where that is required. Mr. Hickey notes that Siemens already has almost 500 employees in Alberta working in its other businesses – mostly related to oil and gas – and some of them could shift to renewables.
Alberta and Saskatchewan have recently introduced new programs designed to encourage the building of renewable-energy generation. Both provinces see demand for power growing, and they also want to cut back on producing electricity from coal-fired power plants as part of their climate change plans to lower greenhouse gas emissions.
Saskatchewan currently generates about a quarter of its power from hydro and wind, but it wants to double the percentage of renewables to 50 per cent by 2030. That would bring the renewable-power capacity – including hydro – up to about 7,000 megawatts. Most of the new power capacity will come from wind, but there will be solar too. A competitive bidding process for the first round of wind power contracts, up to 200 MW, will begin soon, and deals should be signed in 2017.
In early November, Alberta's NDP government unveiled details of its renewable-energy plan, as part of the transition away from coal. About 30 per cent of electricity would come from renewable sources by 2030, which means adding about 5,000 MW of new generating capacity. The first round of bidding, for 400 MW, will begin early next year, with potential developers submitting the guaranteed price they want for their power. After a contract is signed, if the market price falls short of the contracted price, the government would subsidize the difference, using carbon-tax revenue to pay for it.