Chris Windeyer
Chris Windeyer

New Power Generation: GNWT Strategy Shifts Away from Big Grids

The latest energy charette report suggests, and encourages, a radical change in territorial approach
This photo-voltaic solar power installation in Fort Simpson looks more like the future than any grandiose infrastructure projects | Photo NT Energy

It’s been obvious for a while now that the GNWT’s former plan to connect the Taltson and Snare hydro grids to one another and to points south is in suspended animation for the foreseeable future.

It’s telling that even a government as enamoured with home-run infrastructure projects like this one concluded that laying out $1.2 billion for a project whose benefits were far from certain was a bad idea.

Political cover for radical change

That’s what makes the newly-issued report from last year’s NWT energy charrette so interesting. It focuses not only on the well-worn realization that the NWT needs to move away from fossil fuels; it also provides the government with the political cover to undertake a radical change in direction of the the territory’s entire power system.

The NWT’s current system is a dog’s breakfast of two unconnected large-scale hydro grids, standalone diesel generators and a smattering of renewable pilot projects. The charrette report twice quotes Marlo Raynolds, the vice president of Calgary-based BluEarth Renewables and charrette keynote speaker, describing the NWT’s electrical system as “the most challenging 68 megawatts I’ve ever encountered.”

Two principal demands emerged from public input into the charrette: we want cheaper energy and we don’t want to use fossil fuels to get it. To get there, respondents suggest a focus on so-called “community-scale” projects and a “portfolio approach” that “should consider a mix of fuel sources and technologies, and those that provide the ‘best bang for the buck.’” Put another way, the solar-diesel hybrid plant that works in Colville Lake might not be the best solution for Sachs Harbour.

Bigger is no longer better

Or on another issue: the Taltson hydro dam is producing five to eight megawatts of surplus electricity right now. If long-distance transmission lines are too costly, what are other ways to use that power locally? What about heating South Slave homes with electricity? What about charging stations for electric vehicles?

We generally think that when it comes to electricity, larger means more efficient. For a long time, that was true: the only way to produce enough electricity for the teeming cities of the industrialized west was to build massive central power plants that burned through huge amounts of fossil fuels. The same was true for expensive nuclear plants: the only way the investment really made sense for utilities was to build ‘em big.

The costs of photo-voltaic solar panels, mass-storage batteries and electric vehicles are all dropping rapidly. As The Guardian reported last August, the giant Swiss bank UBS is now bullish about renewables. Meanwhile, “‘Solar is at the edge of being a competitive power generation technology. The biggest drawback has been its intermittency. This is where batteries and electric vehicles (EVs) come into play. Battery costs have declined rapidly, and we expect a further decline of more than 50 percent by 2020.’”

UBS is even telling investors that large-scale power plants are too big and lumbering to have much of a future, except as hubs for smart grids, which can quickly provide backup power as needed.

Customizing community power

Likewise, the NWT will continue to rely on diesel as, at the very least, a backup fuel for the foreseeable future. We can’t afford the hub-and-spoke model anyway. But the report offers the outline of a system that allows individual communities to gauge their own needs and make use of the energy sources best suited to them.

The charrette report urges the government to continue its efforts on energy efficiency, residual heating and biomass, while adopting policies that include baseline targets for renewable power generation, and a combination of carrots and sticks to get industry using more green power.

It’s not an easy or sexy path ahead. If you’re fond of complaining about your power bill, you may continue to do so. And the charrette report’s authors repeatedly stress that theirs is not an official government document. The GNWT is expected to issue a report in February or March, with the possibility of new initiatives being announced after that.