In light of soaring gas prices and talk of energy shortages, the promise of renewable energy has resurfaced.

Prime Minister Paul Martin has committed to making Canada a major producer of renewable energy, recognizing the necessity for alternative resources. But, like the charges they emit, each form of renewable energy production has both positive and negative qualities.

Inspired by Quebec’s resource-lush James Bay region, we compare hydro and wind energy, evaluate their pros and cons, and attempt to determine an answer to our energy needs.

Winds of change
Canada ’s first major wind project was in Quebec’s blustery Gaspé region. Wind farms have since popped up all over the country with the help of federal government dollars. In December 2001, the government announced financial support for the installation of 1,000 megawatts (MW) of new capital, and then in 2005 for 4,000 MW, to be installed by 2010. Officials hope these lofty numbers will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by three megatonnes annually by 2010, helping Canada meet its Kyoto promises and compensate for energy shortages.

Wind energy production in Canada has expanded exponentially due to these government initiatives. Canada’s largest wind farm is currently under construction in Saskatchewan at 150 MW, with hundreds other MW contracts being awarded across Canada each year. This is a good thing since Canadians are the largest consumers of energy in the world, with an annual 1.2 percent growth of electricity needs in Quebec alone.

Measuring up

  Wind Water
Capacity 590 MW installed capacity, as of Aug. 24/05 60% power from hydro
Costs Averages 4¢/kWh Averages 5-¢/kWh
Type of resource Renewable Renewable
Predictability Predictable in some locations Usually predictable year round
Incentives 1.0¢/kWh 1.0¢/kWh
Job creation More jobs per unit of energy production than hydro  
Battery reserve Requires large reserve Requires smaller reserve
Land use management Farmers/ranchers keep land Land loss to flooding, creates potential recreational areas
Aesthetic appeal Can be noisy; towers can be visually obtrusive, depending on size Quiet and can be unobtrusive, depending on dam
Land area affected Can be very small to many hectares in size; still use land for farming, for example Usually large impact on surrounding land; large-scale alterations to water resource often required
Environmental affects Kills birds, especially raptors Increases mercury levels, can affect entire watersheds, disrupts animal patterns, such as fish spawns, floods large areas of lands

Lessons learned

Both forms of energy production have their upsides and downsides of consistency of supply, environmental effects and lack of emissions. In the end, wind and water power compare rather similarly. Perhaps this complimentary relationship can, in fact, be the answer.

Wind energy has a strong correlation to load requirement — greater wind potential in winter and during the day when we use more energy — but is dependent on the wind’s ebb and flow. At night or during calm days, water stored behind the dam’s walls can compliment wind and supplement the energy grid. The answer may not be in choosing one power source or the other, but in developing complimentary renewable energy systems that benefit the environment and our dwindling energy supply.

External links:
Canadian Wind Energy Association
The Canadian Dam Association

More from our James Bay online exclusive:
Travelling the James Bay Road
James Bay damming project: Water under the dam
Dam science
Renewable energy: Wind versus water
Climate change: Taking the heat
Cultural travel
Tolkien landscape: subarctic wilderness of northern Quebec
A conversation with Matthew Coon Come
A brief history of Cree
How to speak Cree