Atlantic Offshore Wind: A national clean energy resource

The first and best use for Atlantic offshore wind would be to provide massive amounts of clean energy to Canada’s electrical grids as far west as Ontario.

This blog was originally published in the The Hill Times.

Parliament is currently considering Bill C-49, legislation that would add oversight of offshore renewable energy development, primarily wind energy, to the mandate of offshore oil and gas regulators for Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador. In recent testimony before the Standing House Committee on Natural Resources, I outlined the tremendous opportunity for wind energy development off Canada’s Atlantic coast, a scale of opportunity that has been greatly underestimated.

To date, the discussion of Atlantic offshore wind energy has focused on using it to produce green hydrogen for export primarily to European markets. While this may be a promising opportunity, green hydrogen is not the biggest prize.

The first and best use for Atlantic offshore wind, which is steadier than onshore wind and much less variable than solar, would be to provide massive amounts of clean energy to Canada’s electrical grids as far west as Ontario. This would be a project of national significance, although there would be very significant economic benefits for Atlantic Canada as well.

The starting premise is Canada’s, and the world’s, commitment to a clean energy transition away from polluting and planet-overheating fuel sources. This transition will require an enormous expansion of non-polluting electricity generation and transmission everywhere.

How much? In Canada’s case, we can draw on a detailed scenario published last June by the Canada Energy Regulator, which projects that Canada will need to double electricity generation by mid-century. Where will all this new energy come from? According to the Canada Energy Regulator scenario, almost half of it would come from wind energy — a seven-fold increase — with the rest coming from a mix of nuclear, hydro, solar, biomass, and geothermal.

In the case of Ontario, electricity generation would more than triple, with almost two-thirds of the growth coming from a 12-fold increase in wind generation.

Where will this new wind generation be sourced? A great deal will come from a massive build-out of terrestrial wind farms across Canada. But wind facilities can be slow to permit and generate significant land use conflicts, especially in more heavily populated areas.

What’s the alternative? We could generate massive new energy from the strong and consistent winds blowing off our Atlantic coast. In those excellent siting conditions, the 15-megawatt offshore turbines that are now becoming standard could be installed by the thousands without getting close to exhausting the potential locations available.

To give a sense of the potential, a single facility of a thousand such turbines (having a capacity of 15 gigawatts) would produce enough electricity to power over six million average Canadian homes, or ten per cent of the country’s current generation capacity.

The installation and operation of these facilities would bring significant direct economic benefits. Extrapolating from a U.S. study, up to 30,000 jobs would be required during the multi-year installation of a 15-gigawatt facility, and maintaining the facility would  create roughly 1,200 permanent jobs. Fortunately, there is already a base of relevant marine skills in the region, and with training, Atlantic Canada could eventually become a global centre of expertise in offshore wind.

In addition to the direct job creation, there would be the region-wide spinoff benefits sparked by an abundant supply of clean, renewable electricity, just as abundant, clean hydro power has brought energy-intensive industry to Quebec.

The potential for offshore wind-generated energy vastly exceeds the consumption needs of the Atlantic provinces, so the scale of the opportunity will depend on export of this clean electricity into Quebec, Ontario, and possibly the northeastern States. As the Canada Energy Regulator scenarios demonstrate, there will be significant demand for this clean electricity.

The challenge will be to mobilize the enormous investment to build the wind facilities and expand transmission westward from the coast. This will require many tens of billions of dollars spread over many years. Currently, the capital cost of installed offshore turbines is approximately US$3-$4 million per megawatt. Thus, a 15-gigawatt facility would presently cost about C$60-$80 billion before connection to the grid. 

This must be seen as a cost-effective investment in both our economic prosperity and a livable planet. And once constructed, it will ensure a renewable supply of clean energy insulated from the vagaries of geopolitics and world energy prices.

What I have described is a national opportunity of genuinely historic proportions. It’s an opportunity to forge a renewable, non-polluting energy system that would unite the vast hydro resources in Newfoundland and Labrador and Quebec with the even vaster resources of Atlantic offshore wind to supercharge Canada’s clean energy transition.

Peter Nicholson is the author of the report Catching the Wind: How Atlantic Canada Can Become an Energy Superpower and the Chair of the Canadian Climate Institute.