The Northwest Territories government continues to work toward a billion dollar expansion of its hydro system, but two northerners with extensive experience in the energy sector say there are better and less expensive options the government should be pursuing instead.
"It makes more sense to go up and down the (Mackenzie) Valley, where there are 26 communities on diesel," said Michael Miltenberger, a former Finance Minister and Minister Responsible for the Northwest Territories Power Corporation. "Their collective legs are buckling under the cost of energy and the cost of food and the cost of living."
Both Miltenberger and Dennis Bevington, who wrote the N.W.T.'s first energy strategy 17 years ago before being elected MP for the Western Arctic, say the power corporation is hobbled by leadership that does not consider renewable energy a viable option.
They say that the best path forward for the North is investing in stand-alone power grids that incorporate different forms of renewable energy and high tech solutions to energy storage.
"We're continuing down a road that's going to end in the future," said Bevington. "We need to get off that road and on one to a sustainable future, and that is making electricity in our communities with whatever we have."
Doubling hydro capacity
The territorial government is proposing to add 60 megawatts of capacity to the existing 18 MW at the Taltson hydro-electric dam. That would more than double the territories' total hydro generating capacity.
The expansion also includes stringing a transmission line across Great Slave Lake to link the Taltson system, which serves communities south of the lake, with the Snare hydro system, which serves communities on the north side of the lake.
Under the plan, the link would include communications lines, such as a fibre optic cable. It would continue hundreds of kilometres northeast of Yellowknife to spur mining development by reducing power and communications costs.
A week ago, CBC provided a list of questions about the project to the territorial government. Despite follow up requests, officials have yet to provide a response or any indication of when one might be forthcoming.
The government estimates the project will cost roughly $1.2 billion dollars. The federal government has agreed to provide $20 million to pay for studies and and other work required to prepare for a regulatory application.
Nine years ago, the government abandoned a previous iteration of the project after spending $18 million on planning work only to find it could not secure a critical element of the plan — a power purchase agreement with one or more diamond mines.
In addition to being a former Member of Parliament, Dennis Bevington is president of Fort Smith based Stand Alone Energy Systems, a business that helps people incorporate renewable energy and high efficiency devices such as heat pumps into their homes and businesses.
Though he lives in Fort Smith, which is powered by the Taltson hydro system, his home is not connected to the power grid.
Bevington offers an illustration of how the cost of renewable energy has gone down. When he first started selling solar panels many years ago, a 100 watt panel cost $1,000. Today, a 325 watt panel cost $240.
"I know the limitations of solar north of 60, I know them very well," said Bevington. "You're not going to do everything with solar but you can do a lot. Wind power has also gone down in price...but the problem with wind (in small isolated communities) is that it's very hard to be successful unless you're using large-scale equipment."
Miltenberger said solar has performed to or above expectations in the few communities where NTPC has tried it. He said he convinced the power corporation to begin planning a 20 MW solar installation near Yellowknife after the community had to burn additional tens of millions of dollars worth of fuel in successive drought years.
Miltenberger said the installation had an estimated cost of $35 million dollars, which on a per/megawatt basis would be far less expensive than the proposed Taltson expansion. When he failed to win a sixth term in the territorial government in 2015, the plan was abandoned.
Energy storage systems, such as batteries, have also been improving and dropping in price. Another technique for storing renewable energy when it is abundant is using it to create fuel that can be used to generate power at any time.
Bevington has been promoting hydrogen production as a way to store energy for more than 20 years. Hydrogen fuel and hydrogen fuel cells, which emit only water vapour, may be the next big thing in renewables.
Earlier this year, the federal government announced it will be releasing a national hydrogen strategy by the end of the summer. This year Alberta energy giant ATCO is piloting a project that blends hydrogen with natural gas delivered to homes and businesses in Fort Saskatchewan.
Both Bevington and Miltenberger say that a key to a modern energy future is using electricity to heat homes and businesses as well as power them.
"The heat market is as big as the electricity market," said Miltenberger, who heats his home with electricity. "If you went after the whole energy market with renewables, you could do that."
Miltenberger said that, since the Pine Point mine shut down in 1988, approximately 9 MW of the Taltson system's hydro generating potential has gone unused each year.
Bevington said NTPC has a program that offers discount rates for those who want to use Taltson hydro for heat but the uptake has been slow. He said when he was formulating the 2003 energy strategy, the power corporation's main concern was keeping competitors from taking any of its business.