Tom Lambert can see opportunity blowing in the wind
And when companies and industry consultants around the world are assessing exactly where to develop new wind power projects, they routinely turn to the Windographer software that was developed by the Calgary engineer.
The highly specialized software analyzes and visualizes wind resource data and accurately forecasts the amount of energy likely to be produced from the range of breezes, winds and gusts that pass over the earth’s surface at any particular location.
In just over a decade, Windographer has become an industry-standard in wind analysis. The software has been sold in over 70 countries and is used by thousands of people in the move to generate clean, low-cost electricity.
The rich endowment of energy resource in Alberta doesn’t stop at oil and gas. There’s a world-class wind resource in the province and – like many entrepreneurs – Lambert identified a gap in the fast-growing market that spurred him to create a wind power modelling product.
“Everyone in wind is gathering the same kind of data,” Lambert says. “It struck me as curious that there didn’t seem to be any type of software tailored to the process of analyzing that data.”
Over time, he built the software into a little-known Calgary success story.
“With timing and luck, we were able to make that product into one that was the preeminent software of its type in the world,” he says.
Two years ago, Lambert’s company, Mistaya Engineering, sold the rights to Windographer to New York-based AWS Truepower, a global renewable energy consulting and engineering firm. Today, Lambert and his team of three are part of subsidiary AWS Truepower, with Lambert, still based in Calgary, in the role of technical director of information services.
Lambert had previously built similar software for the U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory during his time as a graduate student in Colorado. He recognized the connection between that experience and the potential for a new product and he set to work.
At first, he made the software available as a free trial from his website.
“People started finding it and downloading it and using it,” he says. “I started getting these early users, and they were all very generous in giving me feedback.”
That early interest in the product convinced Lambert that he could make a business from Windographer.
While Calgary is known for developing oil and gas, Lambert says there’s a “surprising community” of renewable energy businesses and the election of an NDP government in 2015 has buffeted the wind industry.
Critical to success for the renewable sector, he says, is the ability to tap into a highly educated workforce in Calgary and support organizations. In the early days of his business, Lambert turned to the National Research Council Canada’s Industrial Research Assistance Program and the Canadian Environmental Technology Advancement Corporation–WEST.
Today, Alberta’s wind industry looks much different than when he started.
The first commercial wind farm in Canada was installed near Pincher Creek in southern Alberta in 1993. The province now ranks third in Canada with installed capacity of 1,500 megawatts, or enough to power 625,000 homes. A 300 MW wind farm – the largest yet in Western Canada – was built near Lethbridge in 2014 but overall development has tapered off.
The outlook for the sector has been buffeted by the election of the NDP government in 2015.
“It is exciting that the current government is taking climate change seriously and setting some ambitious goals for getting away from coal,” Lambert says.
In September, the government revealed a strategy to phase out coal and generate 30 per cent of the province’s electricity from renewable sources – wind, hydro, solar, etc., – by 2030.
“The opportunities for growth here are quite large,” says Evan Wilson, regional director for the prairies at the Canadian Wind Energy Association. “People are taking notice. Companies are taking notice. Investors are taking notice.”
For instance, the hit U.S. TV show, “This is Us” recently had a plot line that involved bidding on an renewable energy wind farm with pre-construction in Calgary. The broader energy story in Alberta is getting told.
The provincial government has forecast the transition to renewables will generate more than $10 billion in economic activity through 2030 and will create jobs and development opportunities throughout the province.
Alberta has an enormous wind potential – particularly in the south – and, as Wilson notes: “Geographic diversity is part of making sure wind generation is reliable. Expect wind farms north to south and east to west.”
After proving its value in producing green energy around the world, Lambert’s locally developed product is now well positioned to help harness the power of the wind here at home.