Canada's Energy Mix

Wind

Wind is easy to see in nature, when it rustles the leaves of a tree or creates waves on the water, but how is a breeze transformed into energy that we can use in our homes and businesses?

Geoff Livingston, Gold and Turbines, https://www.flickr.com/photos/geoliv/30269134931/, (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

How do we use the wind to produce electricity?

Wind turbines use blades to collect the wind’s energy by using kinetic energy (the movement of the wind over the turbine blades). Wind flows over the blades creating lift, which causes the blades to turn. The blades are connected to a drive shaft that turns a generator (mechanical energy) to produce electricity. The best places for wind farms are areas with strong winds, such as hills, open fields and near coastlines. Smaller wind turbines can be used to power cottages, farms or remote communities. Larger wind farm installations provide power to the electricity grid, sending electricity to thousands.

Douglas Sprott, PEI — North Cape 13 — Wind Farm, https://www.flickr.com/photos/dugspr/6985371803/, (CC BY-NC 2.0)

How does the electricity travel to where it needs to go?

There are three stages in the electricity system—generation, transmission, and distribution. Generation is about producing electricity, transmission is about moving it, and distribution is about delivering it to individual customers.

Transmission lines carry electricity from generating stations to end users or consumers. When electricity is running through these lines, some electricity is lost due to resistance and dissipates as heat. To reduce the amount of electricity lost in transit, these transmission lines carry high voltage electricity.

Power generators produce low voltage electricity and in order for this electricity to be transported to where it needs to go, the voltage has to be increased. A “step up” transformer is used to convert it to a higher voltage that the transmission lines can carry. Once the electricity reaches its destination, a substation “step down” transformer converts it back to a lower voltage so that it can be used by consumers.

The last part of the electricity grid is the distribution network, which is essentially the network of wires that takes the electricity from the transformers and carries it to the end-users. Electric utilities are private companies or government organizations that handle the production, transmission and distribution of electricity. Managing the electricity grid is a complicated process and an important responsibility.

Canada is connected to the United States through an international network called the North American Power Grid. Along the U.S. border there are more than 35 transmission connections, which allow for a flexible and mutually beneficial trade in electricity between Canada and its neighbour.

What is the electricity used for?

Electricity is used in our homes and businesses for things like lighting, heating and cooling, and powering appliances and electronic devices. We live in a world dependent on electricity. From the refrigerator in your kitchen and to the computer that you’re using to access this website, electricity is the thing that makes possible most of our modern-day conveniences.

Government of Alberta, Pincher Creek - Wind farm, https://www.flickr.com/photos/governmentofalberta/17090004865/, (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

How does wind energy production impact the environment?

Since wind power does not produce greenhouse gas emissions, it is considered a more environmentally friendly energy source. Wind energy is a renewable resource and its production does not directly contribute to climate change, but the manufacturing and set-up of wind farms does produce some greenhouse gas emissions (e.g., transporting the turbines to the site location). However, wind energy is one of the cleanest ways to produce electricity.

The land used for wind farms can be multipurpose because the actual turbines do not take up too much space, which allows for the surrounding space to be used for animal grazing, trails, or even agriculture.

Wind turbines can have a harmful effect on wildlife, specifically birds and bats, but it is relatively low and doesn’t pose a huge threat to their populations. There are ways to mitigate the effect on wildlife such as with careful site selection, to avoid wildlife migration corridors, or to pause turbines during periods of low wind speed so as not to confuse birds or bats by slow moving blades.

Green Energy Futures, Wind Energy Institute and North Cape PEI, https://www.flickr.com/photos/greenenergyfutures/26582501720/in/album-72157667674836326/, (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Where do we find wind farms in Canada?

Ontario leads Canada in installed wind energy capacity. Quebec, Alberta, and Prince Edward Island are also leading producers of wind energy. In fact, wind energy accounts for nearly all of the electricity generated on Prince Edward Island and meets about a quarter of the island’s electricity demand. In Quebec, vast hydroelectric supplies can be used to back-up intermittent generation sources such as wind. Small and isolated wind-generated electricity systems are also found all across Canada. 

Did you know?

Installed wind power capacity in Canada has expanded rapidly in recent years and is forecasted to continue to grow due to increased interest in renewable energy and the dropping cost for manufacturing and setting up wind turbines.