After visiting Reford Gardens, we took the road east as it follows the south shore of the St. Lawrence river. Our destination was the village of Cap Chat, where we had reservations for the night. The road meandered up and down and around hills, and as we drew closer to Cap Chat we began to get glimpses of windmills. We would get a tantalizing peek before they disappeared again behind another curve or hill. Finally, at the outskirts of town, we could see the windmills clearly.
This is Le Nordais, the largest wind farm in Canada and one of the biggest in the world. There are 76 750-KW turbines at Cap Chat, and an additional 57 turbines at nearby Matane. The 133 turbines have a total installed capacity of 100 MW of electrical energy. The electricity produced is sold to Hydro-Québec on a long-term contract. You can take a tour of the facility and we followed the road signs to the reception area.
Standing in the parking lot, you can look across the street at the windmills. Awesome! There is something majestic about these structures. Watching the blades swooshing quietly around is mesmerizing. The windmill supports are 55 metres tall from the ground to the hub, and the blades are each about 24 metres long.
As the only English-speaking visitors at the time, we had our own private tour with guide Pierre-Olivier. The young man has been giving tours for 6 summers now during school vacations (he plans a career as a math teacher) and he is very well-informed. He was an excellent guide.
The tour actually focuses on the site’s lone vertical windmill rather than the standard horizontal windmills. It is the tallest vertical-axis wind generator in the world. It was constructed as part of an experimental investigation into the potential of vertical windmills. Vertical windmills are more efficient than horizontal windmills and have the advantage of being able to catch the wind from any direction.
The vertical windmill operated for 6 years. One disadvantage to its design is that the entire upper structure rotates on bearings in the base. After a few years of operation, the bearings began to wear out and needed to be replaced. The costs involved in lifting the huge upper structure to replace the bearings would be substantial and the return anticipated from the sale of electricity does not justify the expenditure, so the vertical windmill has stood idle.
More than $30 million was invested in the development of the vertical windmill. After it was abandoned, horizontal windmills were imported from European countries and now the technology to produce horizontal windmills has been established in Québec. The horizontal windmills cost about $1 million each.
A number of factors influenced the choice of this site for the wind farm. It is not near any known bat caves or major bird migration routes. The wind is reliable. The site is economically accessable. Power lines are located nearby. The area is relatively sparsely populated and rough land that is not under cultivation is available. Landowners are paid a rental fee for the use of land that would otherwise have limited income potential. I believe Pierre mentioned that a wind speed of 5 to 7 kilometres per hour is required to run the windmills and the annual wind speed average at this location is about 25 km/hr.
If you would like to learn more about wind turbines, the Quebec government has produced an informative brochure that can be accessed online at www.mrnf.gouv.qc.ca/english/publications/energy/20024010.pdf
I asked Pierre about the source of the village name, Cap Chat, which translated literally means Cape Cat. What’s not to love about a place called Cape Cat? Disappointingly, Pierre assured me no cats were involved. The name was most likely derived from an early pioneer called Chaste, whose name was abbreviated over time to Chat.