FLYING over the diverse, awe-inspiring British Columbia landscape in a small plane can be a mind-expanding experience. Four times the size of the United Kingdom and with a population of about 4.5 million, Canada's Pacific province contains vast stretches of land largely bereft of human habitation. Numerous flights over BC in 2004 as we prospected for wind with our vintage plane, the legendary Grumman Goose, drove this point home.
Initially, we were drawn to BC's magnificent outer coast, where the windswept, wave-battered shorelines had us thinking that this part of the province would have the best wind regime for generating power. Although BC's outer coast is indeed a windy place, the wind is lumpy: furious at times, meek at others, particularly in summer. We ventured further afield, as far as northeastern BC (commonly known as "the Peace"), a region of prairie and mountains, and almost everything else in between. Here too, wilderness abounds. This is particularly true in the northern reaches of the Rockies, and the flat, sparsely vegetated ridges that parallel them for hundreds of kilometers. Flying over these ridges we found powerful, steady, smooth winds, even in summer—and began connecting the dots. We surmised that closer inspection would confirm that there is an opportunity in the Peace to generate an extraordinary amount of much-needed clean energy—in a province that imports about 15% of its electricity, primarily from greenhouse gas (GHG)-belching coal-fired thermal power plants.
Sparsely vegetated ridges parallel the Rockies for hundreds of kilometers.
How right we were. More detailed surveys of the Peace ridges on foot and by helicopter made it abundantly clear that the wind there is powerful, relentless, virtually unidirectional—and bitterly cold.
Hostile to both man and beast, the ridges are textbook perfect for windmills. The high speed of the wind translates into exceptional energy values because the energy content of the wind varies with the cube of the average wind speed: two times as much wind delivers eight times as much energy. Its high frequency, day after day, season after season, means that it can be relied upon to generate electricity with relatively few interruptions. As for its unidirectionality—starkly expressed by the branches of the few scrubby trees tenacious enough to keep roots in the ground by only growing on the downwind side of the trunk—this allows turbines to be much more tightly spaced than usual, resulting in extraordinarily high energy yields per area.
Soon, a vision was born, a company was launched, and lease applications were filed. The subsequent in-house and third-party gathering of data made it abundantly clear that BC had one of the most phenomenal wind resources in the world—one that was completely untapped.
Rounding out the picture are Williston Lake and the WAC Bennett and Peace Canyon dams, which are also located in the Peace and provide some 40% of the almost 9,000MW of power-generating capacity of BC Hydro, the huge BC Government-owned electrical utility. The dams, of course, represent mile zero of an array of high-voltage transmission lines that deliver power to Vancouver and many other BC cities and towns. How fortuitous, one might think, to have this convergence of wind and hydro. True—the lake can function as a huge battery for wind-generated electricity, enabling Hydro to conserve water behind the dams and to transmit to its customers as much wind-generated electricity as possible whenever the wind is blowing.
The legendary Grumman Goose, used to prospect for wind throughout BC
The wind roses to the left illustrate the phenomenal unidirectionality (from WSW) of the wind on Peace ridges, resulting in extraordinarily high energy yields per area.
The wind sweeping across the ridges of the peace is remarkably steady from month to month. October and December, the windiest months, each provide less than 10% of the total annual energy. April, the calmest month, produces almost 8%.