Wind-power users in Northern BC

🕔Apr 06, 2007

The consciousness of power:
Wind-power users in Northern BC
While Vancouver companies like Naikun Wind Development Inc. and Katabatic Power Corp. work to clear the engineering and political hurdles required to get ambitious, multi-billion dollar projects underway, innovative, average Joes and Joannes aren’t waiting—they’re already finding ways to incorporate wind-power into their own homes.

In this second installment of a two-part series on wind-power in northern BC, Northword chased down these environmental trailblazers to find out more.

Off the grid

There’s nothing unusual about what’s happening this bright April morning near the confluence of the Suskwa River and Harold Price Creek, some 20 kilometres from the nearest power pole: The spring sun is warming the air on the valley bottom, causing it to rise.

For Ken Rabnett, a fisheries consultant who lives with his partner Nabby in a 960-square foot, two-bedroom home, this is a good thing—because when it does, cooler air will rush in to fill its place, generating surface winds. When they reach 11 kilometres per hour, the blades of two small wind turbines near their house will start to turn, generating electricity that will be stored in six 12-volt batteries. These will power their lights, two computers, a printer, a digital radiophone, and a music player.

Ken and Nabby’s needs are well served by this very modest system, which was given to them about 10 years ago. It’s complemented by a waterwheel that drives a refrigeration system in the summer, solar panels and three small gas generators. These back-to-the-landers live simply, heating their home and water with wood. Their nearest neighbours are about 10 kilometres away—which suits them fine.

“We’re cobbling this together…not throwing a lot of money at it,” says Rabnett, who estimates his wind-power setup is worth about $1,000.


About 450 kilometres east, on a 19-acre rural Prince George property, you’ll find a different kind of wind-power user: Graig Pearen, a retired engineer who lives in a modern four-bedroom, 1,320-square-foot home with his family.

Pearan installed a two-kilowatt (KW) wind turbine last summer, even though his home was already fully connected to the BC Hydro grid.

“I started using wind-power last summer, initially more as a hobby,” says Pearan, a founding member of the Central Interior Chapter of the BC Sustainable Energy Association. He acquired some used equipment and enjoyed the technical challenge of integrating it into his home’s electrical system. His home uses less than half the BC average for a dwelling of that size, and swings so seamlessly between the grid and his solar/wind system that power outages go unnoticed.

“People ask me ‘what’s the payback?’ My answer is, ‘what’s the payback from having a snowmobile, a boat, a home theatre?’ I’m doing this because I want to. It’s fun, and satisfying.”

Rabnett and Pearan share a lot in common with other northwestern BC wind-power users: they both use solar power to complement the energy they generate from wind, they’re pretty fearless about grappling with alternative energy systems, and they’re highly motivated to do so.

But their motivations differ widely—and highlight a fact that distinguishes small wind-power users from those driving large-scale wind projects like Naikun and Banks Island. Whereas the latter are influenced by potential payback on investment, “small wind” users are influenced by “soft” factors that confound some economists: a desire for energy independence, a sense of making a personal contribution to a cleaner environment.

Who uses wind?

On a spectrum somewhere between Pearan and Rabnett, you have wind-power users like Roy Howard in Dunster, Anastasia Ledwon in Quick, and Haida Gwaii neighbours Meredith Adams and Chris Ashurst.

Roy Howard was probably one of the first residential wind-power users in Dunster, a small community about 250 kilometres east of Prince George. He and his wife Julia live in a log home on 18 hectares about two kilometres off the grid. When they installed a wind turbine almost 30 years ago, it was mostly an economic decision.

“We could not afford to connect to the grid,” he remembers. Even today, this would cost them about $60,000.

Roy has since built his life around his commitment to sustainability, expressed in his work as executive director of the Fraser Headwaters Association. And he loves his small wind generator.

“It’s pretty exciting to have a good storm, watch the meters going up, charging up those batteries—it’s more dynamic than solar,” he enthuses. “Our generator used to have a LED light on it, visible from my wife’s office…we’d watch this little firefly going when it was cooking!”

Anastasia Ledwon can relate. Four years ago she installed a wind turbine at her spacious, 3,400 square-foot home on a quarter-section in rural Quick. She and her husband Richard Beck, both exploration geologists, work from home.

“It would have cost between $20,000 and $50,000, including logging and blasting, and taken six months, to get hydro in here,” she says. Their $30,000 wind/solar hybrid system took less than two months to install. It includes four solar panels, a 33-metre tower about 50 metres from the house with a one-KW wind turbine, and 12 two-volt deep-cycle golf cart batteries. For cooking, water heating, some space heating and their dryer they use propane.

Their house weathered a formidable test last October: on their wedding day a record-breaking snowfall plunged the region into chaos—and completely derailed their carefully planned wedding reception. They enjoyed a week snowed-in with about 20 relatives, barely noticing the ensuing power outage that left hundreds in the cold for days.

“It’s nice to be self-sufficient,” says Anastasia.

Chris Ashurst and Meredith Adams are neighbours and business partners on Haida Gwaii, where 100 km/hour coastal winds are considered a largely untapped, world-class energy resource.

Visitors to this remote, wildly beautiful island might be surprised by this fact:
“We’ve got what’s been described as the dirtiest electricity in the province, because of the amount of diesel we burn,” says Chris, who bought property in the north near Tow Hill. “Here in the island’s north end, it’s almost 100 per cent diesel generators.”

He’s planning to install a wind turbine to complement the two solar panels that already help power the two hand-built cabins on his property.

Just down the road, Meredith and her partner Colin are upgrading their 400 watt wind/solar system which powers two cabins and a shop, including lights, computer, stereo and power tools. Their wood-heated sauna and stove heat a thermal-siphoning hot water system.

For Meredith, the choice of wind is as much about realizing principles as it is a practical solution. “It’s so much more rewarding to flip a light switch and know that you’re creating and maintaining that electricity without consuming fossil fuels or contributing to climate change,” she says.

Certainly, wind-power users boast a higher-than-average sense of their own power consumption, and a more realistic sense of electricity’s true costs.

“It’s amazing how cheap electricity is,” says Roy in Dunster. He calculates the cost of hooking up a freezer to the grid, about 1 kilometre from his home, at 6 cents per kilowatt-hour (kwh)—a fraction of the more than $1 per kwh he figures it costs to run and amortize his multiple-source system of solar, wind, and generators as a backup.

“The price of electricity and fossil fuels is too cheap. It’s encouragement for people to waste, drive big vehicles…. It’s subsidized through government programs. The tar sands get billions of dollars worth of subsidies.”


For the conservation-minded, wind-power is a sexy subject. But is it a solution for everyone?

All of the users we spoke with are proud of their systems—but equally aware of their challenges.

Depending on applicable bylaws where you live, systems larger than 5 to 10 kilowatts may require lengthy environmental impact assessments and public consultations. Your neighbours’ take on wind is going to be relevant.

“It depends on their perspective,” observes Chris, who envisions neighbourhoods taking advantage of economies of scale by investing co-operatively in medium-sized wind turbines. “Some see wind turbines as a blight on the landscape, industrialization of the beach…others see it as the deindustrialization of our power network, and as power of the people.”

Lots of people seem to agree: all of the people we interviewed enjoy very supportive, if relatively distant, neighbours. According to Chris, Meredith’s wind turbine/solar system is practically a tourist attraction in the area.

Roy emphasizes the need to be on top of maintenance: for him, this includes topping up batteries regularly with water, replacing them periodically (this recently cost him $5,000), and carefully disposing of about 2,000 lbs. worth of lead-acid batteries.

As Meredith found, it’s important to ensure your equipment’s suitability for your particular wind conditions. “Initially we had a really tight budget and got the cheapest wind turbine we could find,” she remembers. But it took a beating under Haida Gwaii’s world-renowned winds, and had to be shipped out, under warranty, for repairs. “We’re upgrading to a larger one, with a much more rugged, stainless-steel construction.”

Wind-power hasn’t freed any of these users from at least some reliance on fossil fuels, typically used in generators as a backup system.

“When we started working at home, our propane bills definitely went up,” reports Anastasia. “We’re not happy using so much fossil fuel.” To address this, she and Richard are adding additional solar panels.

At more than 35 cents per kilowatt-hour, small wind energy production costs are not generally competitive with retail grid electricity.

“If your motivation is strictly economic, it will only work if you’re off the grid and would cost you tens of thousands of dollars to bring in BC Hydro,” says Howard.

“When you’re making this decision, there are economic arguments that can help you out,” offers Chris. “Ultimately, you just have to want to do it, and be prepared to put some money towards an ideal.”


In Chris’s opinion, one of the biggest blocks to people in Haida Gwaii adopting wind-power is that there aren’t many people experienced with it who are able to teach others. But obstacles breed business opportunities; that’s why he and Meredith are starting a new business that will research, design and install renewable energy solutions for Haida Gwaii homeowners. Pearan has also begun consulting, as has Howard who sells solar, wind, micro-hydro and solar water-heating equipment.

Time will tell if any of these ventures can successfully capitalize on the rapid growth of wind-power in Canada. Although wind supplies only a fraction of this country’s energy needs—half of one percent per year, compared with 20 percent in Denmark and eight percent in Germany—the Canadian Wind Energy Association reports that Canada’s total installed wind energy capacity more than doubled in 2006 to almost 1,500 megawatts (MW)—enough to power about 450,000 homes. Of this, small wind turbines (those between 1 and 30 KW) account for only 1.8 to 4.5 MW—an amount consumed by approximately 750 average Canadian homes.

The association’s 280 corporate members hope the federal government’s newly restored wind-power production initiative—which offers large-scale wind projects a one-cent per kilowatt-hour subsidy for their first 10 years—will help the provinces achieve its goal of at least 10,000 MW of wind energy by 2015.

The first step

Today, these power-conscious users of wind echo a similar refrain: Before even thinking about wind-power, people should consider the numerous ways they can save resources immediately. Do you really need a remote control for your stereo, and clocks in every room?

“People don’t realize: plugged in, your TV uses almost as much energy turned off as it does on,” says Anastasia.

Use power-bars to unplug appliances like TVs, VCRs, and coffee-makers, which consume power even in standby mode. Replace incandescent light bulbs with energy-miser, compact flourescents, and turn ’em off when they’re not needed. Install motion sensors on outside lights; quit spewing fumes by unnecessarily idling your car.

“The big thing people need to understand: the first step is really looking seriously at your consumption, and making changes,” says Meredith. “Conservation is going to save most of your money.”

Find out more: – BC Sustainable Energy Association, Central Interior Chapter: – One Sky: The Institute for Sustainable Living, Smithers – Canadian Wind Energy Association: – Small Wind in Canada website—see their ‘ballpark calculator’ to get a rough estimate of the economics of wind for you:

© Larissa Ardis 2007