HALKIRK, Alta. – Patti and Steve McKnight have a new appreciation for the wind.
The central Alberta farm family used to curse the constant wind that drifted snow across their driveway and blew cold air through their parkas and into their bones.
Now, they smile when the wind blows because they know they’re making electricity and selling it on the provincial power grid.
Fed up with their increasing electricity bill, the McKnights installed a $40,000, five-kilowatt electrical generator a little more than a year ago to turn wind into power and eventually money.
“We like the wind now,” Patti said.
Halkirk has steady winds, which have enticed other energy companies to consider building wind farms in the area.
In theory small, electrical turbines should spin wind into profit, but in Alberta, rules limit profit on small wind turbines.
“The rules and regulations are better than they have ever been, but they’re still stacked against agriculture and stacked unfairly,” said Mel Tyree, a professor with the University of Alberta’s renewable resources department.
Tyree is working with a university master’s student to measure the amount of wind at different heights on McKnight’s 38-metre tower. He’s also working with Alberta Agriculture engineers to install a prototype wind turbine at an irrigation site near Lethbridge.
Unlike other provinces, Alberta limits farmers to installing turbines that generate only the amount of electricity that they use in a single location. With no large grain bins or chicken barns, the McKnights were limited to a small five-kilowatt turbine to operate their home and a few outbuildings.
Alberta separated electrical generation and distribution when it deregulated the system about 10 years ago. Consumers’ electricity bills now include one charge for the electricity they use and another for its distribution. No matter how frugal they are, landowners often receive a monthly bill for more than $100 for distribution.
“It’s the distribution fee that drives me nuts,” Steve said.
The McKnights’ turbine has generated 8,278 kilowatts of electricity since it began operating eight months ago. They have used 3,650 kilowatts on their Shooting Star Ranch and sold 5,991 kilowatts onto the electricity grid.
They hope a recent model upgrade of their Endurance wind power turbine with larger, more efficient blades will allow them to generate more electricity for sale.
Patti said few producers will install expensive wind turbines until Alberta changes the rules so that they can quickly pay for themselves.
“There’s no incentive,” she said.
Added Steve: “If we want to encourage micro generation, we need to find some way of making it realistic.”
He said Saskatchewan offsets the cost of turbines with government incentives, and Ontario pays bonuses for creating green energy.
“This machine can pay for itself, but it would probably take the life of the machine.”
Tyree said a separate distribution fee is a major disincentive for wind generation.
“In Alberta, you don’t get credit for distribution charges,” he said.
Tyree has built an energy efficient house using wind and solar in New York state, where wind generation is encouraged.
Despite the roadblocks, the McKnights believe wind generation is a natural fit for most prairie farms. Instead of looking at the land as only a source of wealth, they say, farmers and communities could look to the wind as a new source of income.
Installing small 20 kilowatt generation systems would allow most farms to generate enough power for their own operations without forcing power companies to upgrade any rural power lines.
“If you could get a $0 bill, you’d find more people interested,” Steve said.
They also found that one of the biggest benefits of installing a wind turbine was the increased awareness of electricity use.
“We got really conscious of our energy use,” Patti said.
They discovered that their water distiller was a big power user, as was their forced air furnace with its continually running fan. Now the fan comes on only when it’s heating the house.
They also realized modern appliances, such as televisions, never really turn off. The McKnights now unplug most of them to eliminate phantom power use.