Testing the winds

Three years ago, the Journal wrote about the much-contested wind farm development on Wolfe Island. Today, the power’s in the blades

With the Wolfe Island wind farm nearing completion
With the Wolfe Island wind farm nearing completion

It’s lunchtime, and construction workers wearing orange vests are milling in the street outside the Wolfe Island Grill and the Wolfe Island Bakery. It may be March, but it’s bustling in Marysville as the Wolfe Island Wind Project enters its final weeks.

The construction—initially approved in November 2005 and funded by Canadian Hydro Developers, Inc. through its subsidiary the Canadian Renewable Energy Corporation—brought a wind park consisting of 86 turbines to the small island. Once it’s up and running at the end of June, the park is expected to power about 75,000 homes.

Before I found myself in an unexpected island traffic jam, I’d been standing on the upper deck of the Wolfe Island ferry with Nancy Erwin, a longtime Kingston resident. Looking at the island, now dotted with a number of tall, white structures, Erwin pointed out that construction had stopped for the day because of heavy winds.

“What they’re building them for is preventing them from building them,” she said, smiling at the irony.

But Erwin said she’s a big supporter of wind power, having spent time working on wind development in the 1970s and 80s.

“I know there are both sides to the argument, and [Wolfe Island residents] are very vehement on both sides. Certainly this has changed the face of what was a very rural farming community,” she said, hiding her face from the 70 kilometre-per-hour winds.

If the turbines had been working on Wednesday, it would have been the ultimate day for power generation, according to Mike Jablonicky, site supervisor for Canadian Hydro Developers’ Wolfe Island Wind Project.

“Today, we’d be making complete capacity output no problem,” he said.

I met Jablonicky at the Canadian Hydro Developers office on the island, located in an orange building that used to house a cheese factory.

As we drove down potholed dirt roads in his pickup truck, Jablonicky’s Blackberry rang off the hook with reports about the weather. Even the barge that normally carries turbine parts to the island had to stop running.

Wind turbines generally shut themselves down when winds reach about 25 meters per second. But the turbines—which started sprouting up on the island in mid-September—weren’t spinning on Wednesday, and probably won’t be until the end of June, Jablonicky said.

“[The weather’s] been the major setback for the entire project,” he said, adding that even in September, the first turbines went up more than two weeks late because of wind.

“Right now the park looks sort of dumb—we’ve got all the turbines are facing different directions,” he said as we drove past a row of stationary turbines, which have a space-age look up-close. “If we could actually get them powered up, it’s almost like a ballet, if you will. They actually all synch in together, all almost choreograph together.”

On a good day, Jablonicky said, the construction crew can usually put up one turbine. Their record is four in one day, he said.

“They just pull together; it’s a straightforward process,” he said, adding that the turbines are manufactured in Denmark and shipped to Ogdensburg, New York. Because the docks on Wolfe Island can’t house a barge large enough to carry multiple turbines at once, each turbine is then shipped separately from Ogdensburg to the island’s winter dock.

“It’s a very long process,” Jablonicky said as he parked his truck in front of the most recently erected turbine, which went up on Tuesday.

A turbine blade, made from fiberglass and wood—light, flexible materials—is about 45 meters long and weigh 12 tonnes each. The base of the structure comes in three parts and supports two blades.

Resting on hopes that high winds won’t stop construction too often, Jablonicky said most of the turbines should be up within about four weeks. Right now there are 60 turbines up and 26 need to be erected before the project is complete, most on the Northeast side of the island.

Each of the turbines should power about 800 houses, Jablonicky said. First, though, they have to be tested to make sure they’re in proper working condition. Submarine cables connect a substation on Wolfe Island to one in Kingston.

“Basically if anything should go wrong, a short circuit or a problem of some sort … protection has to be in place so we don’t shut the rest of the grid down,” said Jablonicky, who has lived on the island since April and, with a crew of seven, will be watching over the park for 20 years—or until he retires.

Right now there are just under 300 people working on the project, but Jablonicky said at its peak, there were about 380 people at work.

“All the merchants in town, all the businesses in town, they love us,” he said. “Usually if you’ve been here come wintertime it’s fairly quiet. This winter was the exact opposite. All the businesses have been booming.”

Wolfe Island Mayor Jim Vanden Hoek said the municipality has a 40-year, $40 million deal for the development of the wind turbines.

“It has significant benefit to the island,” the mayor said over the phone this week, adding that the majority of Wolfe Island residents are pleased with the park.

“You never satisfy everyone but, again, I think that the residents are … happy with the development in terms of what it means for the local economy.”

The spirit surrounding the wind park is also one of provincial pride, Vanden Hoek believes.

“I think that Wolfe Islanders are also good Ontarians … they feel that they are at least part in the greening of the community.”

For Canadian Hydro Developers, the project was budgeted at $410 million and, due to weather-related setbacks, is now costing about $475 million. Maintenance will cost between $4,000 and $5,000 per turbine each year.

In January, the project was approved for participation in the ecoENERGY for Renewable Energy program. The Canadian government will pay Canadian Hydro an incentive of one cent per kilowatt hour for up to 10 years.

The company won’t give out details about how much landowners who host turbines are paid, but the amount is “not too bad,” according to Jablonicky.

In April, the technicians who will be working on Wolfe Island are attending turbine training in Houston, Texas, where Siemens—the company that manufactures the turbines—has its head office. Once they’re up and running, the turbines will go through maintenance procedures once a year. Most turbines should have a lifespan of at least 20 years before they need retrofits, although some can make it to 40. Cost-wise, they break even somewhere between 12 and 15 years after installation.

Jablonicky said the Wolfe Island site will be the second-largest wind park in Canada, second only to the Melancthon Wind Project in Shelburne, Ontario, where he was operations manager for a year and a half. Wolfe Island will generate 198.7 megawatts per hour, which sounds less impressive compared to the approximately 23,000 megawatts of power used every hour in Ontario on a summer day.

Despite the positive effects the turbines have on power generation, though, a number of their opponents object on environmental grounds. In response, Canadian Hydro did its homework.

“This site, it was probably the most comprehensive environmental assessment ever done on a wind park in Canada,” Jablonicky said.

The company’s website has more than 700 pages of assessment available to the public. Additionally, there will be post-construction environmental monitoring in place, including monitoring of bat and bird fatalities, movements in the submarine cables and noise developments.

“We’re not here to destroy things; we’re here to help move the process along,” he said.

“Everybody wants power but no one wants to see it in their backyard, and that’s completely understandable. But we have to change our way of looking at things.”

Ian Baines, Sci ’74, spoke to the Journal shortly after he sold the company that envisioned the island’s wind farm as it is today. Three years later, he said he’s pleased with the results.

“Back in 1993 I stood on the Kingston shoreline … and I envisioned in my mind these tall majestic wind turbines, and when I went back to Kingston a couple of weeks ago, there they were,” he said over the phone this week. “Big as life.”

The recent visit found Baines on the ferry to the island, where he ran into a number of people he’d dealt with over the course of the 13 years he was involved with the project.

“Everyone I spoke to complemented me, how nice it is. It’s what they’d expected, what they’d hoped for,” he said.

Today, Baines heads Windstream Energy Inc., which is involved with eight projects in Ontario, British Columbia and Wyoming, all on about the same scale as the Wolfe Island project. He said most people don’t realize how economically beneficial wind farming is.

“This is really a boon to renewable energy, but it’s a huge boon to farming,” he said.

Baines, who’s also a director on a farming board run by the Ministry of Agriculture and Food, said the wind park has put Wolfe Island on the map, bringing investment to the island.

“What the windmills do is they give the farmer a second crop and allow the farmer to live on the land,” he said of the payments the landowners receive for hosting a turbine on their property.

“Wolfe Island is a harsh place and a hard environment. It’s great for wind, but tough on crops.”

On the ferry, John Hanely—who has lived in Marysville on Wolfe Island for nine years and works on the Wolfe Island Ferry—is another turbine supporter. But Hanley said he has encountered more than one alcohol-fuelled argument at the bar about the wind turbines.

“Just visually, and if you own land where there’s a lot of them near your land, it seriously devalues your property,” he said when asked what bothers the objectors.

In general, though, he said the subject is usually avoided.

“I like them. I’m just glad they’re not too close to my house.”

Click here and here for links to the Journal’s 2006 series on the project.

All final editorial decisions are made by the Editor(s)-in-Chief and/or the Managing Editor. Authors should not be contacted, targeted, or harassed under any circumstances. If you have any grievances with this article, please direct your comments to journal_editors@ams.queensu.ca.

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