The Wind Man

Nothing about Yves Gagnon telegraphs the ambitions of an environmental reformer. Not the 65-foot, paved driveway that leads to his two-car garage. Not the multi-thousand-square-foot home he shares with his wife, Mylene, and 12-year-old daughter, Gabrielle. Not the expanse of perfectly manicured lawn or the conspicuous absence of windmills, solar panels, compost heaps and any of the other accoutrements you typically associate with a dedicated, lifelong friend of the earth.

No, standing here today, on a glorious, cloudless May afternoon in suburban Dieppe, N.B., the close-cropped, clean-shaven, middle-aged man bedecked in a blue oxford button-down, khakis and sensible sandals might just as easily be your dentist pondering his next tee-off time. That he is, in fact, professor of mechanical engineering and K.C. Irving Chair in Sustainable Development at the Université de Moncton and, inarguably, Atlantic Canada’s leading and most vociferous exponent of renewable energy only serves to remind you that all is rarely as it seems on the front lines of the ecology movement these days.

“I must confess,” he smiles. “This is a pretty nice place we have here.”

He’s a soft-spoken gent whose waistline betrays a certain fondness for the finer things in life. (Indeed, his professional rap sheet declares he enjoys “cooking gourmet meals with his spouse.” Incongruously, it also says he is an avid hiker “with numerous expeditions under his belt, including one to Mount Everest’s base camp”). But his gentility – the product, perhaps, of an untroubled youth, academic success, and years spent in happy pursuit of scientific principles – masks a hard-boiled determination to change the world, or at least his small corner of it.

“There are a lot of misconceptions about renewable energy,” he says. “Too many people here think wind, tidal, solar and biomass alternatives to oil aren’t actually feasible or viable in our modern society. They think they are either too expensive or too unreliable. But these technologies and processes are being put to work and to good effect in other parts of the world. And the lesson in this is that respect for the environment and economic prosperity are not mutually exclusive concepts.”

This may be as close to a unified statement of principles – a holistic philosophy of life – as you’re likely to get from a man who is committed to merging renewable sources of power into the mainstream of everyday life on the Canadian East Coast. It explains why, in 2007, after months of research, he and his team of scientists at the Université de Moncton released to the public a New Brunswick wind resource map, which showed definitively, and for the first time, how the province’s steady breezes can be harnessed as commercial commodities. It also illuminates his objection, last year, to the New Brunswick government’s ill-fated attempt to sell NB Power to Hydro-Quebec without consideration for the economic potential of home-grown energy alternatives. And it underscores why, this summer, he’s working in France, under the auspices of the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, on “smart grid” technology, which seeks to solve the intermittency problems that weaken wind’s economic value to large transmission systems.

In fact, “Mr. Wind” is Gagnon’s nom de guerre if only because he knows this renewable energy resource, above all others, is closest to achieving widespread practicability. On one recent day, for example, Spain posted a wind power production record, registering 27 per cent of national consumption, or 10,032 megawatts. By the end of last year, the total capacity of all wind-powered generators in the world was 159.2 gigawatts, while the actual energy produced from these was about 340 terawatts, accounting for about two per cent of planetary electricity use. As of May 2009, 80 countries deployed wind commercially, including Denmark (where off-shore breezes supplied 19 per cent of stationary power production); Portugal (13 per cent); and Germany and Ireland (each, seven per cent).

By comparison, the amount of electricity wind generates in Canada – where hydro and coal remain dominant – has been miniscule. By January 2010, natural bluster was supplying only 1.1 per cent of the nation’s stationary power largely through 99 wind farms, which represented approximately 3,319 megawatts of capacity.

Still, according to The Canadian Wind Energy Association – which has called for installed capacity of 55,000 megawatts by 2025, meeting 20 per cent of the country’s energy needs – the current circumstances belie more promising developments. “Wind energy is one of the fastest growing sources of electricity in Canada as governments seek ways to meet increasing energy demand, reduce greenhouse gases and stimulate rural and industrial economic development,” the organization states in a recent report co-authored by Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters. “Canada’s wind energy industry scored a record year [2009] with 950 megawatts of new wind energy capacity installed in eight provinces – placing Canada ninth globally in terms of new installed capacity. [This] represented more than $2.2-billion in investment.”

Indeed, the study insists, “Over the past 10 years, global wind energy capacity has continued to grow at an average, annual rate of more than 25 per cent. Comparatively, U.S. growth over the past five years has averaged 30 per cent. Global investment in wind energy is projected to total more than $1-trillion (US) by 2020, bringing global installed capacity to more than 600,000 megawatts.”

All of which does bring a smile to Gagnon’s lips when he ponders the future of this natural resource in Atlantic Canada. Only a few years ago, the four provinces were in a dead calm; today they own the bragging rights to more than 500 megawatts of combined, installed generating capacity. And yet, the scientist in him remains only cautiously optimistic. Yes, he says, there’s been progress in the region, but it has only been achieved through hard work, focus and assiduous myth-busting. There’s still plenty of work to do, plenty of minds to enlighten and, frankly, plenty of legitimate issues to address about the long-term business case for wind power.

“In academic research, we learn that what we think we know is not always what is,” he says. “Often we see economic prosperity measured in terms of quantity. But it can also be measured in terms of quality: Quality of work, quality of products, quality of services, and quality of social equity. That’s what we call sustainability. It’s not some fuzzy notion. It’s real-world stuff. So, to get at the truth about energy, we have to face every apparent dichotomy and ask ourselves: Is it really a dichotomy?”

It’s an interesting question coming from a man who can be, from time to time, his own study in contrasts.

Leaning forward into the table where we sit chatting, in the screened back porch that overlooks a thicket of tall evergreens, Gagnon flashes a playful grin. “Listen,” he whispers. “I’m going to tell you something not too many people know about me.”

For a moment, I imagine the confessions of an inner life unbridled. Perhaps he’s about to say he always aspired to be a Broadway song-and-dance man, or an astronaut. Maybe, his true calling was deep-sea fisherman, or stunt plane pilot, or TV talk-show host, or doorman at the Ritz-Carleton, and not an eminent academic/policy wonk with all the burdens of authority this vaunted role entails. But, no; in some ways, his revelation is even more surprising. “Once upon a time,” he says, “I wanted to be a nuclear engineer.”

In fact, he insists, he was so determined that he spent a co-op work term as a university undergraduate at Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. before discovering, with bemused disappointment, the fallacies on which the industry had carefully constructed its public image as a world-leading, cutting-edge repository of extraordinary talent and technologies. “It was all a deception,” he snorts. “There was, and still is, a lot of randomness in the processes. There were, and still are, a lot of estimates being made instead of measurements. It became clear to me that nuclear energy was not the high-tech sector it was bragged to be at that time.”

That time was the early 1980s, and young Yves (the middle child of three born to, and raised by, hard-working, loving parents in Edmundston, N.B.) suddenly found himself at a crossroads. “I was still really interested in engineering,” he says. “When I was much younger, I liked to take down motors, rebuild them and stuff. I liked to see how things worked. So, if nuclear engineering wasn’t for me, what was? The work I was doing at AECL actually gave me a clue.”

Specifically, that work was numerical modelling, a branch of mathematics which predicts the behaviour or movement of. . .well, just about anything (molecules, waves, air, even entire planets). Something about the discipline appealed to him. It might have been its simple purity or its great utility in helping to solve complex, otherwise incomprehensible, problems, but Gagnon could see a future for himself puzzling riddles, both large and small, in the various laboratories of his considerable mind.

And there was something else, perhaps. “Where I grew up, the woods were behind our house,” he says. “I’d go into them with my friends. But, where they brought guns for hunting and killing partridges, I never did. Without knowing it at the time, I was developing a profound respect for the environment.”

What, then, could be less threatening to any ecosystem than an engineer who prefers the mathematical study of movement over the construction of power stations? Still, it wasn’t a question he actually pondered in 1986 when at age 24, having completed undergraduate studies at the Université de Moncton and the Université de Sherbrooke in Québec and earned a Master of Science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he became a professor (at the time, one the youngest in Canada) at his alma mater, UdeM. Later, he earned a PhD from the Université Paul Sabatier in Toulouse, France, studying computational fluid dynamics, a branch of numerical simulation.

Gagnon can’t really point to any “ah-ha” moment; the moment when he embraced wind as the Atlantic region’s best, most sustainable source of electric power. In science, epiphanies are rare and often wrong. He comes to his conclusions, he says, like any diligent academic: through painstaking research and consummate consultation. It’s an evolutionary process. But it’s fair to say that the lure of public responsibility helped galvanize his respect for environmental issues to the basic desire of every engineer to make the world work better. “A good researcher must have the capacity to see his research evolve as the need for it evolves,” he says. “And part of this is to work really hard. Another part of it is to make his findings known, to disseminate outside of his classroom, to contribute to the broader world.”

It’s not surprising, then, that one of the two biggest influences in his life was a humble janitor at M.I.T. “His job was to wash the floor,” he says. “He would start at one end of the building, washing and waxing. When he reached the other end of the building he’d start all over again, washing and waxing. And that would go on all night, washing and waxing. He had a system. He had the tools. He knew what he was doing. Frankly, the guy liked his job, and he did it the best way he could. He worked very hard.”

And the other influence? Gagnon shifts slightly in his chair, and casts a wandering eye around the porch where we’re sitting and chatting. The table is exotic hardwood. The chairs are composed of plastic. Somewhere beyond the entry is another dining room and a palatial kitchen. “I believe in people who transform attitudes peacefully,” he says. “I believe in persuading and convincing people with words.”

He leans into the table again and whispers: “That’s what Mahatma Ghandi did.”

Certainly, there was nothing particularly peaceful about the firestorm of angry reaction that attended the New Brunswick government’s sudden-death decision last fall to sell NB Power to Hydro-Québec. And no one was more surprised by, or opposed to, the news than Gagnon.

Over the years, he had taken some pride in the close working relationship he managed to forge with elected officials and senior bureaucrats. His research for the governments of Richard Hatfield and Frank McKenna, for example, was instrumental to the reorganization of the province’s network of community colleges. And he was a key player in laying the cornerstone of Premier Bernard Lord’s innovation agenda. Indeed, in 2003, he served as the founding president of the New Brunswick Innovation Foundation.

But nothing, perhaps, excited him more than the fresh possibilities for wind in the wake of Premier-Elect’s Shawn Graham’s 2006 vow to place energy development at the top of his agenda, alongside education and the economy. The new regime had even set a target of 300 megawatts of installed wind-generating capacity in the province by 2016.   Here, Gagnon thought at the time, was a marvellous opportunity to bring ground-breaking research into the public square.

“This is what I was thinking when we decided to unveil our wind resource map of New Brunswick in 2007,” he says. “It had 25 times more information than previous versions with much more detail about land features and wind velocity. Among other things, it clearly showed exceptional wind potential along the Acadian Peninsula and a potential for 4,000 megawatts of installed wind-generating capacity.… This was a conscious decision to disseminate our work, which we had done for free. We wanted land owners to see it. We wanted government members to see the true value of the wind resource we have.”

If they did, it didn’t seem to register for long. The proposed agreement with Québec, Gagnon says, was short-sighted in the extreme: “This is a very long-term sector. It was not a good deal for New Brunswick, as it basically transferred the province’s energy future to another jurisdiction for quick and relatively immediate gains. So, I decided to speak out. I participated in the debate and made myself available to answer questions. I just wasn’t expecting to be asked for my opinion as much as I was.”

Apart from the dozens of interviews he granted to media outlets across the country, he released another crucial piece of research which attempted to show how the Graham Liberals were ignoring another, far better option. According to the document, “The profits generated by a 100 megawatt wind farm can reach $200-million over the 25-year life cycle of the project. Furthermore, since these estimates do not take into consideration eventual revenues from the trading of carbon credits, the profits could be much higher once carbon markets are introduced into the economy…. Extrapolating the results from a 100 megawatt wind farm to a total installed wind energy capacity of 4,000 megawatts in New Brunswick indicates that benefits could be in the order of $300-million per year or a total of $7-billion over 25 years. A Big Wind energy strategy could be an alternative to the sale of NB Power.”

Gagnon certainly takes no credit for the eventual failure of the deal with Québec, but he does appreciate any and all opportunities to promote and defend a remarkable and largely untapped resource for energy self-sufficiency in Atlantic Canada. For while governments may vacillate and lose sight of the big picture, despite their stated intentions, others remain consistently critical of wind energy as an inefficient, costly, even environmentally damaging source of power.

Writing recently in the Saint John Telegraph-Journal, chemical engineer Ian L. McQueen reflects the views of many, if not a majority, when he claims: “A wind turbine generates power only when the wind is strong enough. Power falls off sharply below the design optimum of 50 km/h. (For the technically minded, output rises and falls with the cube of wind speed, so halving wind speed reduces power to one-eighth.) And the wind is usually weakest when electrical demand is the highest – the coldest days in winter and the hottest days of summer.”

Moreover, he declares, “Wind turbines are big and ugly. And typically, a fifth of them are idle because of mechanical problems. They are also noisy, even at considerable distances: An endless rumbling. Whining from the gearbox. Blade tips whipping through the air at more than 200 km/h. A thump as each blade passes the tower. And optical flickering from the blades. Add to that a risk of ice being thrown off the blades in the winter. And not for nothing are turbines known as ‘Cuisinarts of the Air’ for their ability to slice and dice birds and bats, typically 20 to 40 per turbine every year.”

To which Gagnon smiles weakly. Many of the complaints, he says, are simply myths, based not on science but on “fear of the unknown”. Others are legitimate. Still, he insists, they can be addressed through better practices, especially with respect to the position and placement of turbines in and near communities. Where critics are on to something, however, is in the intermittence of wind-generated power. It’s a problem he and others are working hard to solve.

“Think of wind as part of a mix of renewable energy options,” he says. “One day, smart grids, which employ two-way digital technology from supplier to consumer, may be able to meter power more accurately and, therefore, meet demand more reliably.”

It’s pure Yves Gagnon: rational, determined, mainstream, and charmingly disarming. And, no, it’s not what you’d ordinarily expect from a lifelong friend of the earth.

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