Standing in the breeze just east of Forrest, Dan Mazier watches as a two-man crew prepares to raise a 60-foot tower in a canola field.
Atop the tower will be a device for minute-by-minute measuring local wind speed, sending the data wirelessly via cellular phone signal to a computer.
At the end of two years, the Elton Energy Co-op’s experts will crunch the data to determine whether it will be worthwhile building two giant wind turbines to generate power for local consumption. They’ll also assess whether the data provides enough ammunition to convince bankers to help finance building the proposed three-megawatt project expected to cost $7.5 million.
In a way, it’s just like an oilfield crew drilling a new test well to gauge the quality of the resource underground.
Except, of course, the resource is in the sky, doesn’t pollute, and will never run out.
“The really neat thing about this is, once you build the machine to capture the energy, it requires no inputs,” said Mazier, who has worked tirelessly since 2005 to bring wind power to his community and develop an economic model that other towns, villages and cities around the province can copy for themselves.
“An oilfield, on the other hand, eventually dries up. That and solar, are the only true zero-input sources.
Building wind power infrastructure is the first step, he said.
Figuring out what to do with that power, even if Manitoba Hydro doesn’t want to buy it, shouldn’t be too hard. Besides the obvious local heating and electricity and industrial needs, for example, plug-in hybrid cars could soak up some of it, or it could even one day be used in a small-scale plant to make nitrogen fertilizer for local farmers.
“What happens when the nonrenewable energy gets really unrealistic in price? How are we going to power our communities? This is a step towards making that transition. Maybe we could supplement 20 per cent, or 50 per cent,” he said.
The Elton project represents a “teachable moment,” both for convincing Manitoba Hydro that letting communities use their infrastructure is feasible, and for showing communities that they can gain control of their energy future.
The process has been painstakingly slow. Ever since he got the wind bug after the St. Leon project was built, the chair of Elton Energy Co-operative has logged countless hours attending meetings, giving talks to local communities, gathering information, and engaging in discussions with provincial officials in his efforts to kick-start local-scale development of the potentially enormous resource that remains largely untapped in Manitoba.
His appeals have been met with some sympathetic ears. Andy Nadler, a meteorologist with the Manitoba Crops Branch helped the co-op get the MET equipment. Citing their economic development value, the Association of Manitoba Municipalities has also lent its support for community wind projects.
Manitoba Hydro has set aside 50 MW out of a target of 1,000 MW in the coming decade for small, community wind power projects to sell power back to the grid, but Mazier said that progress on that front has been frustratingly slow.
Each Manitoban spends roughly $2,200 per year buying energy, mainly in the form of fossil fuels. That represents a $2.5 billion drain on the economic health of the province that, if stopped, could provide future energy security as well as economic development. In Elton municipality, that’s $2.8 million leaving the community every year.
Elton Energy has developed a Community Power Investment Fund model, which allows local people to buy and sell shares in alternative energy projects such as wind, biomass, biogas and solar in their own communities. As the number of successful projects supported by the fund’s technical and organizational resources grows and feeds capital back into the organization, its ability to provide capital investment support in more areas would expand accordingly.
Mazier noted that politicians of every stripe say they want to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but few have presented realistic, concrete plans on how to achieve it. Beyond efficiency gains, the only way to achieve reductions without shutting down the economy or severely affecting people’s lifestyles is to develop alternative resources.
“How are we going to do that? Who is going to decide, ‘No you can’t go to hockey tonight because it has too much of an environmental impact?’ Or busing kids around rural Manitoba?”
There’s no time to lose in building up alternative energy infrastructure, he said. Buildings in the town of Forrest and the school, he noted, are heated mainly on natural gas, and the cost is dependent upon the variables of supply and demand.
Without fuel for their cars, people could simply stay home, but a shortfall of heating fuel or gas in mid-January when the mercury dips to -40C could lead to tragedies, not just inconveniences.
Alternative energy resources such as wind are proven technologies, he added, but the lead time needed to scale them up is considerable. That’s why it’s important to get started now before the window of opportunity slams shut.
“I don’t want to have to go back in time and start using horses again simply because fuel is so unaffordable. We shouldn’t let it get to that. But if we keep putting our heads in the sand, we will,” he said. “If we’re not careful, this is going to sneak up on us.” [email protected]