How prairie farmers got their second wind

PINCHER CREEK, ALBERTA - As you drive south from Calgary, they first appear just past the town of Claresholm - tiny spikes in a line across a ridge on the distant horizon.

Turning west on Highway 3, with the Rockies silhouetted in the distance, they're on the left, the right, then dead ahead, like clusters of sentinels on the hills and ridges, their three arms revolving languidly in the wind.

Welcome to Canada's wind power Mecca - Pincher Creek, Alta. - home of the highest concentration of electricity-generating wind turbines in the country.

In southwestern Alberta, like other regions such as the Gaspé peninsula in Quebec, the Shelburne area northwest of Toronto, and the North Cape of Prince Edward Island, wind turbines have become permanent features on the landscape and important contributors to the local economy.

But nowhere are they as ubiquitous as in the area immediately surrounding Pincher Creek, a notoriously windy region where towers have now become part of the social fabric thanks to the more than 200 turbines that have sprung up over the past 15 years.

Wind turbines are part of the town's logo, the tourist bureau hands out maps of wind farms in the region, and visitors travelling through the area routinely pull over at the side of the road to get their pictures snapped with a turbine - or dozens of turbines - in the background.

While it is impossible to quantify, the economic contribution of the wind industry to the town of Pincher Creek is far-reaching, said mayor Gary Mills. Most people employed by the wind companies live in town, local contractors are hired to build and maintain the wind turbines, and the industry has even become a tourist draw.

More importantly, the wind industry will be a long-term player even when the carbon-based energy sector wanes, something that is inevitable, Mr. Mills said.

"As you move down the road, you know that the oil and gas industry is not going to be here forever. But the wind will be here forever, so we have to exploit that," he said.

Canadian Hydro Developers Inc., a Calgary-based power company that owns three wind farms near Pincher Creek and has plans for substantial expansion, said it spends as much as 15 per cent of each project's cost locally, including hiring for road construction, welding, and equipment moving. On a $400-million project, that means more than $50-million pumped into the local economy.

And once a wind farm is up and running, it is supervised and maintained by local staff. That means the creation of relatively high-paying, technical jobs, said Ian Lindsell, the site supervisor of Canadian Hydro's Cowley Ridge wind farm, the oldest major wind project in Canada, located just west of Pincher Creek.

Mr. Lindsell, a former aircraft maintenance engineer who worked previously at Pratt & Whitney Canada Corp.'s engine plant in Lethbridge, Alta., was able to return to his home town of Pincher Creek to use his high-tech skills in his current job.

That was a huge bonus for him, he said, because "you don't find a lot of technologically advanced careers in small towns."

In the rural areas around Pincher Creek, where the turbines are actually located, the economic clout from the wind business is even greater.

In particular, the wind industry has become a crucial source of tax revenue for the Municipal District of Pincher Creek - the huge million-acre rural municipality that surrounds, but does not include, the town.

The growing number of wind turbines in the municipal district generate an increasing amount of its tax revenue. Just six years ago wind farms brought in $237,000, or less than 6 per cent of total tax revenue.

This year, that number is up to almost $1.6-million, or more than 23 per cent of the municipal district's tax take.

"Without the wind farm tax base, our taxes would be damn high," said Rodney Cyr, reeve of the municipal district.

The wind projects also generate significant amounts of money for those who have turbines on their property and collect rental payments from the wind farm operators. Landowners usually collect a percentage of the revenue generated by each turbine on their property, or a fixed monthly fee.

Canadian Hydro estimates that it, and the two other companies that own substantial wind farms in the Pincher Creek area, spend as much as $980,000 a year in total on these payments.

At a time when agriculture and ranching are suffering - notwithstanding a spike in commodity prices - wind farm revenue can be crucial to keeping a farm business intact.

Just ask Curtis Sinnott, whose 1,800-acre family farm lies about four kilometres north of Pincher Creek. Canadian Hydro has five large wind turbines spread throughout the farm property, with another 15 planned.

Mr. Sinnott's farm has been collecting about 2 per cent of the gross revenue from the turbines since they were installed in 2000, and this will rise to 3 per cent after ten years. That generates roughly $2,500 to $3,500 a turbine each year.

While the extra money isn't crucial to the solvency of Mr. Sinnott's farm property, it will come into play when it's time to transfer the farm between generations, he said.

Without the cash from wind, parts of the farm might have to be sold off when it is time for Mr. Sinnott's parents to transfer it to him and his brother, or when he eventually transfers it to his children. "We need positive cash flow to maintain it as a single economic unit," he said.

One other consequence of having money-spinning turbines on the property: Mr. Sinnott is a little more sanguine about the hassle of living in a very windy part of the world.

"Whenever the wind blew before we had any windmills, it was a bad day," he said. "Now when the wind blows and you're struggling to get into the car or truck and the door slams on your leg, you don't feel quite as bad about it."

While farmers with a potential wind resource are enthusiastic about what they can gain from wind, others are not so sure they want wind farms cluttering the landscape.

The municipal district council has introduced some controversial bylaw changes that could slow wind turbine development down considerably. Their concern? That large, uncontrolled wind turbine development will interfere with the spectacular views of the foothills and the Rockies.

The bylaw changes attempt to set new criteria for assessing future wind development. They included the concept of "viewsheds" - scenic views that are so important to the community that they shouldn't be sullied by wind turbines. The new rules also say the "cumulative effects" of existing wind development need to be taken into account when approving new projects.

"It's not that the council is against windmills," said Mr. Cyr, the reeve. "We want windmills, but we want to see them done in an environmentally-friendly way.... We can't have them all over the place."

The council is trying to flesh out its proposals to take into account the concerns of wind developers and landowners, but the wind industry is adamant that the local politicians are overstepping their powers.

The concepts of "viewshed" and "cumulative effects" are far too subjective and could drive developers away, insists John Keating, chief executive officer at Canadian Hydro Developers. He said the municipal district's move could draw a legal challenge, and end up prompting the Alberta government to take control and set the rules for wind expansion.

If Pincher Creek pushes it too far, "it might ultimately mean the province may have to over-ride municipalities in making these decisions," Mr. Keating said.

Whichever way the bylaw controversy is resolved, it will be some time before more wind farms explode onto the scene around Pincher Creek. The transmission lines in the area are at their capacity, and until new ones are built - not likely until next year at the earliest - the current landscape will remain as it is now.

Southwestern Alberta is not the only part of the country that has seen its economy benefit from a flurry of wind power development. Quebec's Gaspé region now has more than 200 turbines, and a wind industry that has helped balance some of the weakness in its fishing, forestry and agriculture businesses.

The area also benefits from Hydro-Quebec's procurement policies, which ensure the utility will buy wind power only from developers that spend 60 per cent of their projects' costs in the province. That has spurred several companies that make or assemble wind turbine equipment to locate in Quebec.

While the rules are tough on developers, "Quebec might become the manufacturing centre in Canada for wind energy because of this policy," said John Keating, chief executive of Calgary-based wind developer Canadian Hydro Developers Inc.

Over all, the Canadian wind industry employed almost 4,400 people in 2007, and that number will reach 10,000 by 2015, according to figures compiled for the Canadian Wind Energy Association. The industry currently spends almost $300-million annually on payroll, the study said, and adds almost $900-million a year to the overall Canadian economy.

The booming wind sector now has about 300,000 workers around the world, according to a recent study from the Worldwatch Institute. The biggest concentration is in Germany, where more than 80,000 people are employed in the business.

The Worldwatch study projects that as many as 2.8 million people could be employed in the wind industry by 2050.



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