In May 2021, the Biden administration approved the first large-scale offshore American wind farm. The Vineyard Wind 1 wind farm will be constructed 24 kilometres south of Martha’s Vineyard off the coast of Massachusetts and will generate 800 megawatts (MW) at peak power when operational in 2024. This is just the first step of an ambitious U.S. program that has set a target of installing 30 gigawatts (GW) of offshore wind capacity by 2030, nearly all of which will be located in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of the northeastern states.
European governments recognized the huge potential of offshore wind power more than a decade ago. The continent now has 116 offshore wind farms with a total installed capacity of 25 GW. In 2020, a further 2.9 GW of offshore capacity was added, generated by 356 new turbines across nine wind farms. The European Union has set a target of 60 GW of installed wind power capacity by 2030. This figure doesn’t include the Brexited U.K., which has its own target of 40 GW of wind power operational by 2030.
The American and European examples demonstrate how Canada can help reach its climate change emission-reduction targets while boosting the economy and creating jobs. Instead of investing in nuclear power, the federal government should follow the lead of both the United States and others by investing in offshore wind power.
Putting these numbers in perspective in relation to the nuclear power now generated in Canada, it takes roughly twice as much wind farm capacity to generate the same power as a nuclear power plant. Substituting the 13.5 GW of power generated by the nuclear plants in Ontario and New Brunswick requires about 27 GW of offshore wind capacity. A Canadian target of 30 GW of offshore wind power capacity easily meets this threshold, and with enough spare capacity to shut down the coal-fired power plants in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.
The offshore wind regime of Atlantic Canada is stronger than that of northern Europe and the United Kingdom. Moreover, compared to the U.S. northeast coast, Canada has access to a much larger offshore area with stronger wind speeds. The available power of this inexhaustible resource is huge. The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has estimated the technically feasible wind power potential along the U.S. Atlantic coast at 1,100 GW, which is more than 10 times the total electrical power now generated by all the provinces in Eastern Canada. Given the higher mean wind speeds and the greater resource area of the Atlantic provinces, Canada’s offshore wind power potential is likely to be substantially greater than the United States.
The cost of electricity from offshore wind has fallen dramatically in recent years as developers have installed larger and more efficient turbines. The documented first-year (2022) price for delivery of offshore wind generation and renewable energy certificates under the Vineyard Wind power purchase agreement (PPA) is between US$65 and US$74 per MWh, which converts to below 10 cents Canadian per kWh. The last U.K. auction awarded 5.5 GW of new offshore wind projects at roughly seven cents Canadian per kWh.
A significant problem remains. Wind power, like solar energy, is intermittent, so utility-scale energy storage systems are essential. However, megawatt-scale lithium-ion batteries are rapidly increasing in size as costs fall. The first, in 2017, was Tesla’s spectacular 100 MW battery in Australia near Adelaide. Four years later, Florida Power and Light powered up a battery with a 409 MW capacity at the Manatee Energy Storage Center in Florida capable of delivering 900 MWh of energy. But batteries have a short duration, storing electricity for only a few hours. For longer duration storage, pumped storage hydropower (PSH) is the best option.
In the U.S., 43 pumped storage hydro plants are currently in operation. Canada has only one – the Sir Adam Beck hydropower plant on the Niagara River in Ontario. However, three new PSH installations are in the planning stage – at Brazeau and Canyon Creek in Alberta, and a large 1000 MW installation on the Bruce Peninsular in Ontario. Globally, the rapidly expanding development pipeline for new PHS projects is testament to the realization by utilities that pumped storage systems can generate significant revenue from the excess energy that solar and wind frequently produce.
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Ontario would be the most important centre of demand for the electricity generated by the Atlantic windfarms. The province generated 151.1 terawatt hours (TWh) of electrical energy in 2018, twice as much as the whole of Atlantic Canada combined. Sixty per cent of this generation comes from nuclear reactors, but the era of CANDU nuclear power in Canada is drawing to a close.
Phasing in offshore wind power to replace the aging CANDU reactors over the next decade will require new or upgraded transmission lines linking Atlantic Canada with Ontario. However, this is not new technology. The infrastructure required to transmit large quantities of power over long distances is mainstream power engineering. High-voltage direct-current (HVDC) transmission lines operated by Hydro-Quebec already carry power south to several American northeastern states. An ultra-high-voltage line in China transmits 12 GW of power over 3,000 kilometres.
This availability of a gigawatt-scale source of untapped renewable energy in Atlantic Canada seriously calls into question government proposals to develop a fleet of small nuclear reactors (SMRs).
The economic and commercial justification for investing substantial resources in the research, development and deployment of SMRs has been thoroughly challenged and discredited by scientists, environmental groups and community organizations across Canada and the U.S.
The development of offshore wind power would bring substantial economic benefits and employment opportunities to the Atlantic provinces, while making a major contribution to achieving Canada’s emission-reduction targets. The federal government should be investing in offshore wind power – a source of inexhaustible renewable energy that Canada has in abundance.