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December 16, 2002

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Tower Power

The CN Tower is perennially Canadian. It says "I am Canada" to the rest of the world, when it's not being confused with the Seattle Space Needle. To Canadians it's a symbol of home, or at least is a pretty big reminder that Toronto exists. It's big, it's spectacular, it's the World's Tallest Wine Cellar. Can it be more?

It was built in the early 70's: ground was broken in February 1973, it was finished in 1975 and opened to the public in 1976. The reason for building it has nothing to do with Freud or compensating for shrinkage during our winters. Due to the increasing number of skyscrapers in downtown Toronto, television signals were getting scrambled, echoed, bounced, and basically really screwed up. So, one huge mother of an antenna was built - the CN tower - and today Torontonians enjoy some of the clearest broadcast television signals in North America. It's a rather pedestrian and almost frivolous reason to build The World's Tallest Free Standing Building, but there you have it.

Since then it's been a tourist attraction. It boasts a draw of two million tourists a year. It has the infamous glass floor on the observation deck for the kids and the rotating restaurant for the adults. Other than a few interesting features, one heck of a breathtaking view, and holding the record for Tallest Free-Standing Building, what good is it?

It's still broadcasting over 500 television channels to homes in Ontario (and probably New York and Ohio), so it's still fulfilling its primary purpose, even 25 years later and after the advents of both cable and satellite television. That's tenacity. It draws millions of tourists every year, although I have to wonder how many come specifically to see the Tower, as opposed to the tourists who are already here for a Jays/Raptors/Leafs/Argos game, the Gay Pride parade, the Symphony of Fire, or the Toronto Molson Indy and decide to stick around for an extra day or afternoon to go up and see for themselves the glass floor that can support 14 hippopotamuses.

What if we could keep all the goodness that the Tower has already, and substantially add to it? What if we could, as a 30th birthday present to one of the 7 wonders of the Modern world, re-task the Tower to fulfill an even bigger role for Toronto, Ontario, and even Canada as a whole? I have such a task for it. It's radical, probably controversial, it will forever alter the Toronto skyline, and eternally change the way the world thinks about Canada if we manage to pull it off. I want to add a wind turbine to the CN Tower and turn it into the world's tallest and largest power-generating wind turbine.

Just think about how that would look - every day of every year, the CN Tower could be producing megawatts of power to provide light and power to the downtown core, arguably the main hallways of business for Canada. And it would be green energy - entirely pollution-free. Wouldn't that be wild?

To do this, someone needs to purchase the tower, or convince the owners to go along with this idea. There are going to be Torontonians that won't want to see huge spinning blades over their head every day. Fears of giant blades impaling the Skydome or the Metro Toronto Convention Centre will abound, I'm sure, but with proper planning should be pretty much baseless. The only big question that I can't answer is whether the Tower can withstand the extra payload. I have a sneaking suspicion that the answer could be "yes", but even if it isn't, there's always "How can we change it so that it can?"

Some of the more astute readers who are up on their wind turbines will look at the Tower, look at a wind turbine, and ask "How are you going to turn THAT into THAT?" If you look at the wind turbine that is currently in operation in Pickering you'll see a slender tower that ends at the turbine's nacelle, which is roughly the size of a city bus. The blades are mounted on one end of the nacelle, and the entire assembly can rotate to most effectively catch the wind and develop optimal power for the conditions present. One look at the CN Tower and you'll wonder where the heck a nacelle would be located.

I'm not suggesting any radical alterations to the structure of the Tower, let alone that we rip out the 7 storeys of existing tourist Mecca and replace it with machinery. I would suggest mounting the nacelle either above or below the existing habitable doughnuts, mounted on bearings that circumnavigate the perimeter of the tower, allowing the wind turbine to swing around the tower as necessary.

In fact, why not do both? According to Ontario Power Generation's information about their Pickering wind turbine, it's the largest in North America thus far. It's only 177m tall, from the ground to the tip of the blade. Compare that to the 335m height of the lower structure of the CN Tower, and we've got plenty of room for more than one. Of course, you wouldn't want to put two on the lower portion, as wind speed and quality degrades the closer you get to Terra Firma and all those buildings at the Tower's base producing strange and wonderful wind effects. Perhaps one below the 7-storey doughnut and one above would work.

Please don't assume that I'm just daydreaming aloud or wanting to change the CN Tower for no good reason. I have excellent reasons for wanting to locate a wind turbine on the CN Tower. I have looked into wind power briefly with the idea of one day erecting my own small household-sized wind turbine. Such devices are already available and in use aboard sailboats, where they are mounted on the mast to allow live-aboard salty dogs to produce their own power without having to consume precious fuel or carry heavy batteries. What I found was that to effectively produce power from the wind, you need height, and as much as you can get.

Buildings and trees buffer the wind, and they all happened to be located at ground level. Thereby, the average wind speed at ground level is relatively low. Now, if you manage to put your wind turbine on a tower, say 30 or 40m tall, the average wind speed it will see could be anywhere between double and quadruple that of the average ground wind speed. Translated into power generated, that can be a significant reduction in your power bill and return-on-investment.

Now look at the big megawatt-sized wind turbines. OPG's Pickering wind turbine has a 1.8 megawatt (MW) capacity, with the nacelle towering over the suburban community at 78m. That's pretty tall, and must get some good wind, as it was producing power 86% of the time last year, according to OPG's website. Well, just imagine what winds the CN Tower sees, at over 550m tall at its peak, and a still impressive 335m at the habitable rings in the middle. I'd guess that we could run just about any size of wind turbine pretty near peak capacity for most of its service life at that altitude.

Being the realist that I am, I can see the problems in implementing this dream. Foremost, I do not own the CN Tower, and I don't have the money to purchase it. Secondly, I honestly don't know what challenges would be faced in retrofitting a 50+ tonne wind turbine onto a 30-year-old concrete and steel structure 300m above downtown Toronto. The biggest wild card in the whole equation is public opinion - some may like my idea, and others will dedicate their life to fight against it, for one reason or another. Of course, all of the previous reasons are pretty much moot, as with a readership of not very many, it's unlikely the idea will be broadcast far and wide, let alone taken up as a cause and championed through to reality.

That's fine - I can live with that. I realize that not all good ideas will have their time in the limelight, and that really good ideas come not from one source, but spring up in many places. While it would be really cool to see a few slender white blades churning out pollution-free power on the side of the Tower, I'd be equally as happy if a few more wind farms were built. They won't be as high profile as the CN Power Tower could be, but I'd rather see more pollution-free capacity built instead of one high-profile public-relations project completed.

I'll just get my graphically inclined friend to whip up an artist's conception together and put it on a T-shirt. Maybe I'll make a few bucks on Earth Day and finally finance my own little wind turbine. If you want a T-shirt, e-mail me or call 1-800-PIP-DREM.



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