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Watt’s Happening: Where Does the Electricity Go?

Monday, April 29th, 2013

by Don Pettit

It’s rare that we get to see our electricity being made. It usually comes from some far and distant unknown source. Plug something into an outlet, and there’s the power. The rest is a mystery.

In the south Peace Region of BC, we have it good.  Here, we have wind power. Big wind power. Right from our own back yards we can see the blades turning, and the faster they turn the more green electricity is pouring into our area. But how can we be sure its not just “disappearing” into the grid? How do we know we actually get to use this ultra-green power?

(Note: the following description of how electricity flows in a grid has been confirmed by conversations with BC Hydro and a friendly physics teacher . . . oh, an electrician too.)

HAPPY LITTLE ELECTRONS

Electricity is composed of tiny bundles of energy called “electrons.” It is conceptually accurate (although a great technical simplification) to think of electrons as flowing through a wire like water through a pipe. You can have twenty closed taps on a pipe, but water will only flow to and through the tap that is open, and it will flow out of the closest tap first. Electricity behaves much the same way.

In the case of our local Bear Mountain Wind Park, electricity generated there flows down a power line from the ridge to the Hart Highway substation. From there it has a choice of going west to Chetwynd (not likely, since that area is now being powered by the Dokie and Quality Wind projects), or east to Dawson Creek. Since Dawson Creek is the nearest big load (open tap), the electricity from Bear Mountain will flow there, while powering up everything it encounters on the way: farms, ranches, etc.

After powering Dawson Creek and area, left over electrons spread out like sap through the leaf of a tree, with the grid being the veins in the leaf. Each load, no matter how large or small, is an open tap that electricity from Bear Mountain will flow to. The stronger the wind blows, the bigger the leaf becomes, spreading wind-generated electrons out across the region.

Thanks to the laws of physics, electricity goes directly to where it is needed exactly when it is needed. It happily turns night into day, gives us instant communication anywhere in the world, toasts our bread, keeps our iPhones and iPads happy, and charges our electric cars (some day). Magic.

ENERGY INDEPENDENCE FOR THE PEACE!

To power all of Dawson Creek’s homes (population about 13,000), street lights, water treatment plants, communications towers, municipal buildings, businesses, arenas . . . pretty well everything, requires about 15 megawatts (15 million watts) at peak load. The 34 wind turbines on Bear Mountain produce that much in a nice breeze; five times that in a strong wind. Averaged over the year and accounting for maintenance down-time and low-wind days, Bear Mountain Wind could easily power three Dawson Creeks year around.

Wind parks more than about 100 km apart are usually in different wind regimes: when the wind is not blowing at one, it will be blowing at the other. Pair Bear Mountain Wind Park with Quality Wind near Tumbler Ridge, and we have a region flooded with wind power pretty well 24/7, 365 days a year. Looking at the South Peace region as a whole, it is now safe to say that we are essentially energy independent from the rest of the planet, powered entirely by the greenest electricity ever invented, generated right here were we live.

So rest assured, oh lucky Dawson Creek residents, that when you see those blades turning even very slowly, (and how often do you see them NOT turning?) you are living in British Columbia’s first wind-powered city, and if you are living in the South Peace region, you are in BC’s first wind-powered region. I think that’s something we can all be very proud of.

QUICK FACT: thanks to government leadership, wind power has surged in Ontario, a province with only a modest wind resource compared to the Peace River Region. Ontario’s Independent Electricity System Operator now considers wind a mainline power source in the province.

Don Pettit is a director of the board of Peace Energy Cooperative.

Image Caption: (sunset over DC) The electricity produced by the 34 turbines of Bear Mountain Wind Park (visible in this photo along the distant horizon) stays right here in the region, powering all of Dawson Creek in a light breeze and most of the South Peace in a strong wind. (Don Pettit photo)