The Conference Board of Canada came out with a report today that assesses the economic benefits to Ontario of developing offshore wind in the Great Lakes. Here’s my story in the Toronto Star. Specifically, it estimates job creation and the boost to GDP that would occur by developing 2,000 megawatts of offshore wind projects between 2013 and 2016. This, the board said, is a conservative estimate — much more could be developed over time. But even at just 2,000 megawatts, it estimated the creation of at least 55,000 person-years of employment and at least a $4.8-billion boost to the province’s GDP. This amount of offshore development would also attract more than $10 billion in private investment. Mind you, this is all based on a minimum local content requirement of 55 per cent. As of Jan. 1, 2012, Ontario will have a 50 per cent local content requirement for wind — so the assessment isn’t far off reality.

I like the idea of pursuing offshore wind, and here’s why: It’s new. It’s a chance for Ontario to be a true pioneer in North America by establishing an early foothold. With solar and onshore wind we’re playing catchup, we’re competing with Silicon Valley and the Chinese, and we”ll never truly be a centre for innovation and manufacturing. With solar we’re also vulnerable when subsidies dry up, as jobs and manufacturing are more mobile. 

With offshore wind, however, we benefit immediately by our geography. Ontario borders all but one Great Lake. Of all bordering jurisdictions Ontario has the most offshore development potential. Ontario has concrete and steel making, the skills and the infrastructure to support an embrace of offshore wind manufacturing and supporting services. A good deal of the supply chain could be established here. As the conference board report attests, the job creation potential is strong and we can leverage existing industries and also boost the more mature onshore wind market in Ontario.

Ontario already has a feed-in-tariff for offshore wind — the first on the continent — that offers 19 cents per kilowatt-hour, less than half the cost of developing multimegawatt solar projects in Ontario. It’s consistent with what Massachusetts utility National Grid has agreed to pay for offshore wind power from the Cape Wind project (18.7 cents U.S. per kilowatt-hour). This may sound expensive, but as some have said, this is an investment in a modern-day Niagara Falls. It might sound like a lot today, but it’s creating an infrastructure that decades from now will look cheap by comparison. Also, new nuclear power plants aren’t expected to be much cheaper.

I want to emphasize that this Conference Board report was sponsored by Vestas SA, which has an interest in entering the North American offshore wind market. The Conference Board, however, has a strong reputation for being independent, non-partisan and objective with its research. I guess such a report wouldn’t have been done had someone in the industry not stepped up to pay for it. I don’t think the Conference Board has anything to gain by writing a pro-offshore report; it would consider its credibility as an organization much more important. With that, I’m willing to trust that its conclusions are completely independent.