The game-changing potential of offshore wind power in Atlantic Canada, combined with an ambitious vision to develop it as an urgent national project, could turn the region into an energy superpower.
Catching the Wind: How Atlantic Canada Can Become an Energy Superpower

Last updated: 17 Oct., 2023

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Less than 200 kilometres off the coast of Nova Scotia lies the fabled Sable Island, known to generations of seafarers as the Graveyard of the Atlantic, a testament to the countless ships that foundered on its shallow, sandy reefs. Famous for its unique herd of feral horses that have survived the island’s harsh conditions for more than 250 years, this slender crescent of sand is the only promontory on Sable Island Bank, a vast undersea plateau. Here, the North Atlantic winds blow with a strength and consistency that could in future make these shallow waters famous for something else: renewable energy. Indeed, the Sable Island Bank is among the world’s best locations for wind energy generation. It and several other similarly endowed areas off the coast of Atlantic Canada hold the potential to place the region among the leading global hubs of offshore wind-powered energy development. The world’s energy system — the motive power of human civilization — is in the early stages of transformation from a dependence on fossil fuels to forms of energy that do not emit climate-changing greenhouse gases. This revolution creates a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Atlantic Canada to recover an economic vitality comparable to the Age of Sail — fittingly built again on the power of wind at sea.

If Canada is to meet its goal to eliminate net greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, the Canada Energy Regulator estimates wind power will have to provide about 30 percent of total electricity supply, compared to less than six percent in 2021.1 Given that the country’s overall capacity needs to more than double, this entails a staggering 10-fold increase in wind generation in fewer than three decades. Much of that will come from onshore wind farms, but such facilities will inevitably come into conflict with other land uses. Enter offshore wind.

Offshore wind could be for Atlantic Canada what oil was to Texas or hydro power to Quebec. We are talking here not of something incremental, but monumental

Despite having among the world’s longest and windiest coastlines, Canada does not yet have a single turbine either operating or under construction in its offshore waters. Nearly 30 countries are ahead of us. The North Sea alone, bordered by seven European countries, is home to thousands of turbines with a combined capacity of 30 gigawatts (GW) of offshore wind power, with almost five times that capacity targeted by 2030. The rapid expansion of offshore wind energy in places such as the U.K., Europe and China illustrates the historic opportunity available to Atlantic Canada.

How big might this be? Consider that the Sable Island Bank alone could accommodate at least 1,000 offshore turbines, each with 15-megawatt (MW) capacity. That adds up to approximately 70,000 gigawatt hours (GWh) of clean, renewable electricity every year. It is enough to supply 6.5 million average Canadian homes or almost twice the total electricity currently consumed in Atlantic Canada annually. And Sable Island Bank is only one of several potential sites in the region. Offshore wind could be for Atlantic Canada what oil was to Texas or hydro power to Quebec. We are talking here not of something incremental, but monumental.

The federal-provincial Clean Power Roadmap for Atlantic Canada has already recognized the opportunities for both onshore and offshore wind power.3 Nova Scotia’s provincial government, for example, has set a target to license five GW of offshore generation capacity by 2030 and at least one developer has already come forward with an offshore pro- posal.4,5 Others have proposed several onshore wind projects that would produce “green” hydrogen via electrolysis of water,primarily for export to Europe.6 But while such projects will help create a wind energy ecosystem of infrastructure, skills and other capabilities, green hydrogen is just one piece on a chessboard of clean energy possibilities.

A much bolder vision is there for the taking. The massive development of wind energy off Atlantic Canada’s coast can play a major role in fulfilling the national decarbonization objective while laying the foundation for durable economic development that the region has been seeking for generations. Beyond securing clean electricity supplies for Atlantic Canadi- ans, the benefits to the region would come in three ways:

  • the supply chain activities created to put in place and maintain a multi-billion-dollar, decades-long investment program in offshore wind generation, which will create business opportunities and jobs throughout the region and beyond;
  • a new stream of earnings from the sale of electricity to other parts of Canada and potentially to the United States; and
  • investments from a variety of industries looking for stable jurisdictions with world-class sources of clean, renewable energy.

While Atlantic wind may be available in abundance, its development and integration into the North American grid will require vast amounts of capital from sources that have many urgent and competing opportunities worldwide

An historic turning point like this does not come without chal- lenges. While Atlantic wind may be available in abundance, itsdevelopment and integration into the North American grid will require vast amounts of capital from sources that have

many urgent and competing opportunities worldwide. And although a vast ocean area is potentially available for siting wind facilities, there are environmental considerations and existing uses such as fisheries and shipping that will need to be safeguarded. Experience elsewheresuggests they can be.

Canada is starting from behind. Until recently, our rich endow- ment of fossil fuels and hydro power reduced the incentive to seek alternatives. Now, with few sites for major new hydro generation and a commitment to decarbonize, Canada’s energy development priorities have changed dramatically.

Fortunately, the global race to develop offshore wind energy has only just begun, and there are benefits in being an early follower — lessons learned, innovations to adopt, economies of scale to capture and negative impacts to avoid. But a greater sense of urgency is needed. The global climate clock is ticking. The energy transformation is gaining momentum and long-term contracts for essential inputs are getting signed. A year’s delay today can translate to many years delay forproject delivery. Canada’s sclerotic regulatory and permit- ting processes are not compatible with the urgency of both the challenge and the opportunity. As the fight to halt climate change becomes more pressing, Canada needs to turn its inexhaustible wind resource into infinitely renewable electricity. That will require a new level of ambition, even audacity.

This paper builds on extensive work already underway and outlines a vision for offshore wind energy as a genuinely transformative undertaking — a true game changer — in enabling aprosperous future for Atlantic Canadians. While it is beyond the scope of a single paper to assessand recommend detailed policy requirements, it does provide an overview of wind power’sprominent role in the global energy transforma- tion and lays out the special opportunity for Atlantic Canada.

Canada needs to turn its inexhaustible wind resource into infinitely renewable electricity. That will require a new level of ambition, even audacity

The final section addresses the potential market for Atlantic Canada’s offshore wind energy, its cost competitiveness, what’srequired to develop a regional supply chain to support offshore wind at large scale, and the need for a supportive policy and regulatory environment.

This is our contribution to the much bolder clean energy vision that beckons.