Steady As She Blows: Next Steps of Quebec's Wind Power Revolution

When it comes to Canadian wind energy deployment, Ontario—with its groundbreaking Green Energy Act—tends to hog the spotlight. And no wonder. Since its implementation in 2008, Ontario’s wind capacity has shot up from 782 MW to 2,622MW in 2013, which in turn has helped the province mothball its coal plants.

But there’s another big wind story in the province next door, and it gets almost no attention in English Canada. Quebec has set a target to install an impressive 4,000 MW of wind capacity by 2015—the result of a decade-old policy intended to stimulate the province’s once-struggling Gaspésie region. A recent KPMG report estimates that there are now 1,200 direct jobs in the Gaspésie wind industry and 4,000 in the province at large.

As Quebec’s wind power sector comes together this week for its 8th Annual Wind Energy Conference, we asked Bernard Saulnier (pictured) to paint us a picture. Saulnier is an independent engineer and researcher specializing in integrating wind power onto the grid. He’s been following the sector since the beginning.

What motivated the initial investments in wind power in Quebec?

The first government decree that led to a request for proposals on wind, in March 2003, really came about because the government wanted to find out whether wind could be competitive in Quebec. Hydro Quebec didn’t have much interest in developing wind, and you would often hear that wind would be very expensive. In fact, the average cost of energy for that first block of power came out to be 6.5 cents per kilowatt hour—people had predicted double that—and that price included the economic development goals that the government had mandated, such as a 60 percent Quebec content requirement. Soon after, in October 2005, the utility released a second, larger request for proposals, and since then we’ve also seen a third block aimed at community and First Nations projects. As a result of these three power calls, 34 projects totaling some 3,100 MW of wind capacity are expected to be in operation by 2016.

Many people see wind power as a good complement to Quebec’s hydropower resources. How is that pairing working out on the ground?

Quebec’s wind development is close to the main load centres where it’s needed, while the main hydroelectric supply is located much farther north. Quebec’s hydro reservoirs act like a gigantic battery, allowing a passive management between the times where the wind blows over southern Quebec and the periods where water flows into the reservoirs in the North. Storage has always been an essential part of our electricity planning in Quebec, and that makes wind power a remarkable asset. Especially in winter—when we have more wind, high demand, and less water flowing—this natural marriage between our renewable energy resources is fantastic.

What distinguishes Quebec’s wind policy that those of other parts of the country?

From the first decree, the provincial government stated its intent to create a wind-energy economy that would be centered on Gaspésie—the region of the Gaspe Peninsula along the south shore of the St. Lawrence River. There were always conditions about Quebec content and job creation in the power calls, conditions designed to create a supply chain and assemble the components here. As a result, Quebec and European companies have built facilities here to supply part of the wind turbine equipment—towers and blades—and construction services.

What do you see as barriers to the growth of the wind power sector in Quebec?

Though Quebec’s total potential wind resource amounts to more than 100 times the electricity we use in the province, at the moment the context is not very favourable to large new energy procurements—whether it’s wind, hydro, gas or anything else. That’s because Quebec has a surplus of power that is forecast to last for many years. So that’s the question that’s on everyone’s lips, and that’s why there’s uncertainty about the future of the sector. We don’t see new projects after 2016 that could support the level of activity we’ve seen in recent years. So there are huge expectations on what the new government will announce to support this industrial cluster. The markets outside Quebec are changing quickly, too. We’re seeing elected officials support feed-in tariffs, renewable portfolio standards, giving emphasis to renewables in Ontario and in the neighbouring U.S. states.

You mentioned the most recent power call favoured community energy. What will that look like on the ground?

We have to consider more local projects, and smaller projects. We need to re-imagine our energy infrastructure and change our planning methods to head in the direction of local, regional solutions and community ownership.

Such as?

The 25 MW Pierre-De Saurel wind farm, a 12-turbine facility proposed for the regional municipality of Pierre-de-Saurel, is the kind of community-owned wind project that is in tune with the new reality.  It’s a $67 million project that is now in front of Quebec’s environmental review board, the BAPE. That’s the direction I believe Quebec has to take to maximize our resources, our wind and our hydro. We need to rethink the old idea that energy needs to come from far away.

What does the long-term outlook look like for wind power in Quebec?

Like any other jurisdiction, Quebec has no choice but to face the reality of climate change. We are scheduled to come up with a new 20 year energy policy shortly (the previous one was adopted in 1996), so the timing is good for a sound public discussion about the energy direction we want to take.

Note: This interview was conducted in French and translated by the author.  Wind construction images: Joan Sullivan.


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