PEI Rocks Wind Power

06/10/2016 03:40 EDT | Updated 06/11/2017 05:12 EDT

By David Dodge & Dylan Thompson

Prince Edward Island is the smallest province in Canada. It's known for Anne of Green Gables, mussels, lobster and some "bright red mud" as Stompin Tom Conners called it in his song Bud the Spud, about the red earth that grows one quarter of all the potatoes in Canada.  But, perhaps less famous, for lack of a catchy theme song, is that Prince Edward Island (PEI) also has the highest proportion of wind power of any jurisdiction in North America.

"PEI actually is one of the leaders in wind in the world ... and 25 per cent of our electricity is produced by wind on Prince Edward Island," says Paul Biggar, Minister of Energy for PEI.

The province lacks a suitable landscape for hydro-electric and has few non-renewable natural resources. So a decade ago, PEI was dependent on expensive diesel and oil powered generators for its on-island electricity production while the New Brunswick grid provided about 75 per cent of its total electricity needs via a pair of undersea cables.

Wind power in just one decade

When PEI's government crafted a plan to wean their grid off costly and carbon-intensive diesel, they turned to wind power, one renewable resource that the island has plenty of. A map of the wind potential of PEI glows red showing high potential for much of the island. As we write this 34 per cent of PEI's electricity is coming from the wind.

PEI began investing in wind generation in 2006 and today has 204 megawatts of wind capacity in a province that has an average demand of 200 megawatts and a winter peak of 260 megawatts.

The PEI Energy Corporation, a crown corporation, owns three wind farms and 73 megawatts of generating capacity. Engie, formerly known as GEF Suez, owns 108 megawatts of capacity and sells most of its power to New Brunswick through a contract. The Wind Energy Institute has 10.6 megawatts while the City of Summerside also has 12 a megawatt wind farm. Interestingly, almost half of PEI's wind is under contract to New Brunswick.

Focus on wind power comes down to dollars and cents

"On Prince Edward Island, it costs us five cents per kilowatt hour to produce it (wind power), but we sell it off for eight cents per kilowatt hour," says Biggar. "So it is a revenue generator for our energy corporation. We take in about $20 million a year of revenue on our wind."

That's quite a contrast to diesel generation that costs up to 45 cents per kilowatt hour. That's also the reason PEI is pretty keen to find ways of integrating even more wind power. Since building out their capacity, PEI uses it's 200 MW of diesel facilities mostly for backup. These days only one per cent of PEI's electricity comes from on-island diesel generation.

However, PEI has reached a bottleneck with their undersea power cables to New Brunswick.

"We're right in the middle of installing a new cable, a 360 megawatt cable from New Brunswick to Prince Edward Island," says Kim Horrelt, CEO of PEI Energy Corporation.

The $140 million project will provide new baseload electricity capacity as demand grows in PEI and it will also allow the continued export of wind power from PEI.

How renewable will PEI go?

The province recently decided to delay building a new diesel plant while they seek public input for their new energy strategy.  Some wonder if PEI has tapped out the potential of cheap wind energy. But a PEI Energy Commission report in 2012 said: "The potential to advance beyond 30 per cent contractual wind integration and utilize even more of the wind energy generated by all of the wind farms in Prince Edward Island can be realized through time-of-wind electricity consumption initiatives."

PEI is looking closely at ways of using more wind power through energy storage. A smart grid program in Summerside shows good potential to expand the use of wind power. Meanwhile, Biggar says "The other area we're looking at is solar power and more biomass" along with "more energy efficiency programs."

Solar one more tool in the clean energy toolbox

The cost of solar is still higher than wind, but much lower than diesel so it may be another part of the puzzle since peak production for solar is midday and in the summer, whereas the wind blows strongest at night and in the winter."Whereas wind sometimes is generating in the overnight hours when the demand may not be is likely to be generating at those peak times of the day when the sun's still out and energy use is high," says Scott Harper CEO of the Wind Energy Institute of Canada, founded in 1981 in North Cape, PEI

PEI already has energy efficiency programs aimed at improving building efficiency and electric heating systems such as air source heat pumps, thermal electric furnaces and water heaters. Consultants advised the province that the cost of energy efficiency is much cheaper than any energy source available to PEI.

Energy efficient and electric-powered, air-source heat pumps, like the ones we've seen in net-zero homes are being installed across PEI including the motel I stayed at.

Integration the key

In a report to the PEI Government Dunksy Energy Consulting reported the costs of various energy solutions: Energy efficiency 4 cents/kWh, wind 6.8 cents/kWh, biomass 15 cents/kWh, solar 18.9 cents/kWh and tidal 30 cents/kWh. But it's not a simple matter of simply picking the cheapest solution. Different solutions provide different benefits and services to the grid. And PEI is already bending the curve through implementation of non-traditional energy storage solutions. The future is not clear, but one thing is certain: PEI appears motivated by early success to push the envelope further.

"I think our end game is if we can get that capacity to store that wind, you would see at least 50 per cent and I think that's our ultimate goal," says Biggar. "How can we capitalize the most on our wind capacity here on Prince Edward Island? Because that is our greatest resource in terms of potential for electricity. That is the goal we're working towards."

More than any other jurisdiction, PEI is wrestling with grid design, energy storage and even the structure of their market to build the clean energy grid of the future.

PEI rocks wind power