Canadian province Alberta broke its wind generation record not once, but twice, last week. Between 11 a.m. and noon on Thursday, July 24, Alberta produced an average of 1,188 MW of wind power. The province then surpassed that on Friday, July 25, peaking at an average of 1,255 MW between 9 a.m. and 10 a.m. Before last week, the previous record was set on May 29, with an average of 1,134 MW.
Angela Anderson, a spokesperson for the Alberta Electric System Operator (AESO), explains that the most recent records were due to a combination of very windy days and new wind farms. Specifically, she says the 300 MW Blackspring Ridge project, which went online in Vulcan County in May, ‘allowed the system to produce more wind than ever before.’
According to the Canadian Wind Energy Association (CanWEA), Alberta is home to over 1.4 GW of installed wind capacity and ranks third among the country's provinces. Tim Weis, the association's Alberta regional director, says the new wind production records are certainly noteworthy.
"This is significant, not only because it was just this past April that Alberta broke the 1,000 MW plateau for the first time, but [also because] Alberta's electricity system is showing that it can integrate large amounts of wind energy seamlessly," states Weis.
He also mentions that the AESO lifted a 900 MW threshold for installed wind capacity in Alberta in 2007, and now wind production has peaked at over 30% more than that original limit.
Furthermore, it appears wind power is poised for growth in Alberta. "There is a lot of interest in wind development in the province, and that's expected to continue over the coming years," comments Anderson. She says the AESO currently has 15 active wind projects totaling about 2.1 GW in the grid operator's connection queue.
Overall, the AESO anticipates wind capacity to nearly double over the next 20 years from approximately 1.4 GW to 2.7 GW. "In fact, by 2034, we are forecasting Alberta will have more wind power than coal-fired generation on the system."
Nonetheless, Weis says most new power generation in the province will likely come from natural gas, not wind.Â
"Alberta is facing two issues simultaneously," he explains. "First of all, federal regulations require that coal units retire when they reach their 50th birthday. Alberta's market is over 60 percent coal, and the first units will start to hit their 50th birthday this decade.
"At the same time, Alberta's system operator is forecasting significant growth in electricity demand over the next two decades, largely as a result of the growing oil sands industry. Several independent forecasts suggest that the vast majority of new electricity supply will come from natural gas to fill this gap."
Weis points out that the price of wind power isn't the reason, though, as the AESO estimates wind energy within 7% of gas costs. The truth is, natural gas is simply easier to build in Alberta's electricity market because "it can more easily bid into the market and respond to changes in future costs."
But there's a problem: Weis says forecasts suggest a big switch to natural gas will eventually undo the environmental benefits gained from closing down coal plants, with greenhouse-gas emissions starting to increase again in just over a decade.
Weis argues that although the AESO has proven it can handle more and more renewable energy on its grid, the province still needs "a new policy framework that recognizes the benefits of renewables so that we can continue to see wind grow in Alberta."