Friday, June 08, 2007

Atlantic Canada Energy Superstore

This was previously published in Atlantic Business Magazine earlier this year


In just 25 years, the image of Atlantic Canada’s energy industry has narrowed to just one source: is oil and gas. Petroleum is the first thing we think of, in part because of the success of the industry and in part because local governments have made so much of it.

But beyond petroleum are other regional sources of energy, some new and some long-standing, which have the potential to fuel Atlantic Canada’s social and economic growth well into the future.

Some provinces have developed aggressive energy policies to broaden their supply. For example, the Nova Scotia government introduced new regulations to ensure that nearly 20% of the province's electricity comes from renewable sources by 2013. Newfoundland and Labrador’s energy plan, first announced in 1998, is nearing completion after almost a decade of revisions responding to changing energy technologies, markets and prices.

The underlying reasons for provincial governments’ interest in energy are many: ever-escalating prices of conventional fuels, reports of dwindling or unstable petroleum supplies, new environmental considerations, technology advancement or just the desire to make the most out of local resources.

Wind and Wave

The popular (and very real) image of the region’s wind-swept cliffs overlooking a roiling ocean has led many an Atlantic innovator to explore the possibility of harnessing the power of wind and wave, especially for isolated communities detached from wider grids.

For wind energy, the concept is simple: erect wind-driven turbines to generate electricity and feed it into the grid. In practice, things are a little more complicated.

First, its energy can only be captured while the wind is blowing, and wind stubbornly refuses to blow in predictable, consistent ways. So, since we can’t make wind more reliable, efforts have concentrated on finding ways to store the energy from the turbines or on developing hybrid systems where wind energy is supplemented as needed by a more dependable source such as diesel.

The other issue is the economic one - turbines are expensive. Great strides have been made in bringing down the costs of wind energy: over the past decade the cost per kilowatt hour has dropped from 10 cents to about 7 cents. However, it still compares poorly to energy at 4 cents a kilowatt produced from coal.

On Ramea Island off the south coast of Newfoundland, Newfoundland and Labrador Hydro is developing a $9.7 million wind hydrogen pilot project using 6 turbines. The goal is to use wind power to produce (through electrolysis) hydrogen that can be stored in tanks for later use. This demonstration project is meant to be up and running by Fall 2008, and Hydro will spend the next three years working out the bugs for development of a final, commercial plant.

PEI, however, is the regional leader, as the home of the Atlantic Wind Test Site (AWTS). Established in 1980 as Canada’s National Wind Energy Laboratory, AWTS is the cornerstone of Canada’s wind energy R&D program. A wind farm located on the northern tip of PEI now produces 5% or about 11 megawatts of the power used by the province's 139,000 residents, and the PEI government has announced an ambitious plan to produce 100% of the island's electricity with wind energy by 2015.

In the case of tidal power, the first thought falls on New Brunswick and the famed Bay of Fundy. And for good reason - in some places the water rises and falls some 16 metres over a 24 hour period. That means, twice a day, there is a reliable source of potential energy that will continue for as long as we have a moon to gaze at.

There are two ways to harness tidal power. The traditional method uses a barrage system to capture the water at high tide and release it through turbines at low tide. Nova Scotia Power already operates a tidal generating station in Annapolis Royal. This plant, which happens to be the second largest tidal generating facility in the world, produces about 20MW of power annually.

More recent technology uses generators mounted on poles anchored to the sea floor, where passing currents turn underwater “windmills”. Because water is 800 times denser than air, the turbine blades can be smaller than those needed to generate the same amount of electricity from wind.

The government of New Brunswick has been studying this technology and says it will continue to explore the idea and encourage the construction of demonstration projects. Studies suggests that two sites in Nova Scotia's Minas Basin, at the extreme eastern end of the Bay of Fundy, are the most suitable in all of North America for this technology. Those two sites alone could conceivably generate 333 MW of power.


Hydro is widely considered the cleanest, most reliable, most cost-effective of the major energy sources. While the Maritimes derive most of its energy from other sources, Newfoundland and Labrador is heavily hydro-dependent, with the potential for even more generation capacity in Labrador.

The now infamous Churchill Falls hydroelectric generating facility in Labrador produces a staggering 5,428.5MW, some 225MW is diverted to feeding the industrial needs of Wabush Mines in Labrador, but the rest is destined for Northeastern US markets by way of neighbouring Quebec. Further down the mighty Churchill River lies the potential for another great hydro project: Premier Danny Williams recently announced a call for Expressions of Interest to develop the Lower Churchill. Although still in the conceptual stage, this project could include a 2100MW dam at Gull Island, an 824MW dam at Muskrat Falls and 1000MW upgrade to the existing facility at the Churchill Falls power plant, thus increasing the current energy output by an extra 4000 MW to a total of over 9000 MW for the entire Churchill River hydroelectric complex.


Atlantic Canada is not generally seen as a centre for nuclear energy, but the region has a nuclear past and a nuclear future.

The region’s only nuclear power station lies at Point Lepreau in New Brunswick. This CANDU heavy water reactor was constructed between 1975 and 1983. With a total output of 640 MW, it supplies roughly one third of the province’s energy needs.

Originally designed to last 25 years, Point Lepreau was scheduled to be mothballed by 2008. In July 2005 NB Power awarded Atomic Energy of Canada a $1.4 billion contract for refurbishing the facility. This will extend the reactor's lifespan by approximately 25 years.

Meantime, Newfoundland and Labrador is now a hotbed of uranium exploration, with approximately 25 companies expressing interest. Labrador has significant uranium deposits and was extensively explored in the 60s and 70s. With the uranium price collapsed of the 80s (due to the end of the cold war and the growing unpopularity of nuclear energy), prospecting efforts waned and the world saw a widespread shutdown of nuclear operations.

But recently, uranium prices have hit new highs and the market is set to keep accelerating. According to a report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), 130 new nuclear power plants may be built in the next 15 years – and uranium is the main element needed to fuel them.


Higher energy prices across the board mean that recently uneconomic sources become economic once again. And coal, a veteran fuel with a bad environmental reputation, is responding to technological advances that make it possible to burn more cleanly than ever before.

So in coal-rich jurisdictions like Cape Breton, companies are looking at the geology to determine if the coal missed in the previous developments are worth re-accessing today.

It turns out that some are.

Swiss mining giant Xstrata Coal won a bid to resurrect an undeveloped coal mine in Cape Breton, more than a decade after it was abandoned and years after miners on the island had given up hope on the industry. Company sources have indicated up to 300 jobs might be created in a region with one of the highest unemployment rates in the country.

This interest is separate and distinct from next-level energy projects seeking to determine the viability and economics of previously untapped coalbed methane. The next wave for coal may not be conventional mining made viable by higher prices and cleaner technology, but entirely new projects made possible by the unrelenting search for new uses for “underutilized” associated fuels.


As long as people need energy, the world will find ways to extract and supply it. These are just some of the existing and future energy sources that make Atlantic Canada such an energy big box store - a wide variety of selection and lots of each kind of item.

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