Paul Baker/the Gauntlet

Editorial: NDP, Herald blowing hot wind

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One comment taken out of proportion can cause a chain of misunderstanding and result in quite a ruckus, especially when the parties involved get caught up in the momentum of the miscommunication.

The Alberta government found itself in a curious mess this week after a quote about the future of the cap on wind power from Premier Ed Stelmach's energy minister, Mel Knight, appeared in the Mon., Jul. 30 issue of the Calgary Herald.

"There is every possibility that (the cap) could move to, in the interim, someplace around 1,500 megawatts," Knight had said.

This irked a few environmental groups and caused the Herald's editorial staff and the Alberta NDP party to respond with obvious, knee-jerk reactions. The environmental groups argued that the cap shouldn't just be changed from the current 900 megawatts, it should be abolished all together. The Herald and the NDP agreed--obvious because there are few who think that more wind power is a bad thing.

"If reducing greenhouse gas emissions is the top of the list for the Alberta government," the Herald editorial, titled "Let the four winds blow," begins, "then pressure should be applied to the Alberta's Electric System Operator to lift the 900-megawatt cap it slapped on provincial wind-power projects last fall."

The NDP echoed the sentiment with typical opposition-party tone.

"The announcement of a higher cap on wind-generated electricity is old news and nothing more than a stalling tactic," said provincial NDP leader Brian Mason. "The Stelmach government is just trying to paint itself green by recycling this old policy decision in the media."

The reactions were knee-jerk because, unfortunately for Albertans, the NDP and the Herald both failed to research the facts behind the wind-power cap.

Alberta's Electric System Operator is an independent company mandated with the task of managing Alberta's power grid. The company put the cap on wind power to allay concerns with inconsistencies in the power grid that come with an increased reliance on wind power. Variances in wind cause the output from wind generators to be less consistent than that from more traditional sources of energy like coal, hydro and natural gas.

In a report released Mar. 7, the AESO speculated on the future of wind power in Alberta.

"We believe the Market & Operational Framework can replace the current 900 megawatt threshold and allow investment decisions to supply portfolio in Alberta to be driven by market forces," the conclusion of the Market and Operational Framework For Wind Integration in Alberta report states.

In less than clear terms, the AESO stated it's possible to replace the cap within the framework of a geographically diverse and well-managed wind-power industry, without compromising the reliability of the current system.

This is backed up by what Ally Sutherland, AESO's manager of communications and stakeholder relations, told the Gauntlet this week.

"It will be eliminated by the end of the year," said Sutherland. "That's what we've committed to publicly and that's what we're doing."

Immediately, the question is raised of how public this commitment is if both the Herald and the NDP failed to take that into consideration when Knight made his comments this week. There is no press release on AESO's website stating the cap will be removed, beyond the less than concretely worded report. NDP leader Mason said it was "news to him."

It's public-nature questionable, it still took the Gauntlet only one phone call to get a solid, quotable answer on the future of the cap from the AESO. What was stopping the Herald and the NDP from making similar phone calls?

In the original Herald article, there is no quote from AESO officials, despite the fact that ostensibly, they are the deciders on the wind power cap and both the Herald and the NDP made no mention of March's readily available and downloadable report.

This is a failure for all parties involved.

While minister Knight is allowed to speculate, in this instance, his choice is strange. It doesn't make sense to comment in a way that is contrary to the direction that the AESO is, according to what they told the Gauntlet, apparently heading.

Even stranger is the whole article that started this mess. The Herald's Monday article lacks any explanation or context behind the Knight quote at the centre of the cap controversy. Knight's spokeswoman said he was only speculating on the cap and the AESO believes Knight was being interviewed on a number of subjects, with wind power just happening to come up. The failure occurred when the Herald took speculation, spun it into official government policy and threw it to the environmental wolves to devour for their front page story. The Herald's job is to report the news, not make the news, and, in this case, they have failed their readers.

The NDP failed Albertans with their Monday press release, which amounted to a lazy knee-jerk and obvious reaction. Yes, wind power is good. Yes, there should be no cap. But, in being reactionary, the NDP missed out on an opportunity to call the government on inconsistencies. If the cap will be removed by the end of the year, as the AESO insisted to the Gauntlet, a call from the NDP to the AESO could've been the proverbial pie in Knight's face. Instead, they continued a disappointing string of moves from Alberta's opposition parties, displaying continuing favour for meanlingless rhetoric and a lack of skill to fight the Conservatives with tact and knowledge.

The government does not escape failure in all this. If the AESO is going to remove the cap by the end of the year, as they insist, they should release a clearly worded press release instead of burying it in policy framework. Knight needs to be in the loop on the goings-on of his portfolio and be clear when he's speculating rather than stating potential policy.

In the end, it's good news that the cap is being lifted. It's too bad the news became mired in such a mess.