Solar Power: A Reality Check

Money won’t flow to solar while the GNWT shields consumers from the new normal by running up long-term debt

After a decade of spending on solar energy, the territorial government can point to a score of installations scattered from Yellowknife Bay to Sachs Harbour that together produce a bit more than 200 kilowatts a year.

The largest, a utility-scale installation in Fort Simpson, generates 106 Kw. It supplies about 15 percent of the town’s electricity and displaces 27,000 litres of diesel, which continues to meet most of the community’s needs.

It has cost taxpayers about $5 million to get this far on the road to the government’s goal: generate 1.7 megawatts with solar — 20 percent of the electrical needs in 25 communities that now rely almost entirely on diesel.

The government’s investments in solar are detailed in a report presented two years ago at a microgrid conference in Toronto. The conference is moving to Yellowknife later this month and more than 100 delegates are expected.

Sponsored by the GNWT, Pembina Institute, and Bullfrog Power — an Ontario-based green energy company that partnered with Lutselk’e Dene First Nation on a 35 Kw solar farm — the two-day gathering also puts Yellowknife on stage as Canada’s pellet boiler capital.  

The Lutselk’e installation, and a $2-million combined solar-battery and diesel system in Colville Lake that is also expected to go into service this month, will almost double solar generating capacity in the Territory, but leave the government far short of its goal.

Another $20 million or more will be needed to hit the 20 percent mark. At the current rate of investment, the government’s grand objective of generating as much as 75 percent of the territory’s electrical power with solar panels seems more theoretical than real.

Borrowing against an alternative future

The money won’t flow to solar and other renewables as long as the government continues to shield consumers from the immediate impact of the new normal by running up its long term debt, with borrowing that last week hit the $49 million mark.

The GNWT need look no further than Diavik Diamond Mine for a lesson in the benefits of investing in alternative energy technology. The mine spent $33 million to build a 9.7 Mw wind farm that was projected to cut its diesel costs by $5 million a year.

Diavik has proposed turning the wind farm over to the government when the mine closes in 2023. That gives the GNWT time to figure out how to pay for the transmission lines needed to get the electricity to consumers.

In the meantime, it might be more cost-effective to pray for rain than continue to borrow against the future to cover the ever-mounting demands of the new normal.

Opinion

YKU

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