The oldest commercial wind power facility in Canada has been shut down and faces demolition after 23 years of transforming brisk southern Alberta breezes into electricity — and its owner says building a replacement depends on the next moves of the provincial NDP government.
TransAlta Corp. said Tuesday the blades on 57 turbines at its Cowley Ridge facility near Pincher Creek have already been halted and the towers are to be toppled and recycled for scrap metal this spring. The company inherited the now-obsolete facility, built between 1993 and 1994, as part of its $1.6-billion hostile takeover of Calgary-based Canadian Hydro Developers Inc. in 2009.
“TransAlta is very interested in repowering this site. Unfortunately, right now, it’s not economically feasible,” Wayne Oliver, operations supervisor for TransAlta’s wind operations in Pincher Creek and Fort Macleod, said in an interview.
“We’re anxiously waiting to see what incentives might come from our new government. . . . Alberta is an open market and the wholesale price when it’s windy is quite low, so there’s just not the return on investment in today’s situation. So, if there is an incentive, we’d jump all over that.”
In February, TransAlta president and chief executive Dawn Farrell said the company’s plans to invest in hydroelectric, wind, solar and natural gas cogeneration facilities in Alberta were on hold until the details of the province’s climate-change plans are known.
“We cannot make any major investment decisions in this market until we have more clarity around the policy environment and the policy recommendations turn into actual law and we know what the market is actually going to be like,” she said.
Last November, Premier Rachel Notley’s government vowed that coal-fired power plants would be forced to shut down or be emissions-free by 2030. Coal power companies in Alberta, including TransAlta, are looking for compensation.
Jean-François Nolet, vice-president of policy and communications at the Canadian Wind Energy Association, said Tuesday his organization has been included in the NDP government’s consultations and is optimistic that changes will be made to encourage wind power growth.
“What the investors need to see is more certainty in the market,” he said, adding that it “just makes sense” that a wind farm such as Cowley Ridge that is already connected to the grid and has a proven wind resource is rebuilt to continue to provide renewable energy.
Alberta has the third-largest installed wind energy capacity in Canada with 1,500 MW and 958 turbines, CanWEA says.
“Designing Alberta’s first comprehensive energy efficiency program under our climate leadership plan will take time to get right,” Environment and Parks Minister Shannon Phillips said in an emailed statement on Tuesday.
“That work is underway and will continue in the months leading up to the phase-in of an economywide carbon price beginning in 2017.”
Unlike sleek modern turbines balanced on thick hollow metal stalks, Cowley Ridge’s turbines near Pincher Creek were built on 24.5-metre-tall steel lattice towers. The first phase was commissioned in 1993 and Phase 2 was added the following year. In October 2000, five more similar used towers were acquired and added.
Oliver said safety was a major factor in deciding to decommission.
“When you’re climbing that ladder (inside the newer tubular towers), you’re not exposed to the wind and the rain and the snow,” said Oliver. “But this lattice-style tower, you’re exposed to all of that.”
He estimated that 680,000 kilograms of metal will be recovered and recycled. The teardown crew will have to wait until winds drop below 25 km/h before dismantling can proceed.
Landowners have asked that some of the gravel service roads be left in place to allow new turbines — and new rent and revenue-sharing sources — to be built in the future, he said.
The lifespan of the original turbines was 20 years, but the company was able to keep them running in part by cannibalizing nine similar towers from TransAlta’s Taylor wind farm near Magrath in southern Alberta, retired in 2012, Oliver said.
He said there’s only one other wind farm still in operation in North America using the same technology and it’s becoming impossible to find replacement parts. TransAlta has known for some time that Cowley Ridge would have to close — a decision was made in February.
About six people work on Cowley Ridge from about 30 people in the Pincher Creek office that will continue to operate Cowley North and Summerview wind farms.
“It’s an iconic landmark in the Pincher Creek area, there’s a lot of interest,” said Oliver.
“It’s bittersweet. The fellows who work on the site, you know, they’ve put a lot of energy and heart into keeping the site running. When it was time to pull the plug and pause all the turbines, the guys the week leading up to it had just got a bunch of turbines back on line that had been down for a while.
“So we were making progress.”