Northern power

Given Canada’s goal of a low carbon future, and even suggestions of moving completely off oil, what are the ramifications for the sustainability of Canada’s northern communities?

When Canada’s three territorial premiers spoke out with one voice against carbon pricing in May 2016, many Canadians did a double take. Canada’s north may be suffering the effects of climate change disproportionately, with temperatures rising faster than in southern regions, melting permafrost and sea ice. Why then oppose the measure most jurisdictions expect will help turn the tide of climate change?

The North is not like other jurisdictions

“I’m hoping that Canada recognizes that a carbon tax may be an effective incentive where there are alternative energy sources,” says Senator Dennis Patterson, a former Premier of the Northwest Territories, current representative for Nunavut in Canada’s upper house, and a member of the Standing Senate Committee on Energy, the Environment and Natural Resources. “But when there are no clear alternatives to diesel fuel for heat, electricity, transportation and survival on the land, carbon pricing is only an added burden on the highest cost jurisdiction in the country.”


Senate report

In 2014–2015, the Standing Senate Committee on Energy, the Environment and Natural Resources held hearings in 18 territorial communities and heard from 42 expert witnesses on the energy obstacles and opportunities facing the North. Issued late in 2015, the final report—Powering Canada’s Territories—presents five recommendations that broadly address the need for more federal government assistance to develop strategic plans, strengthen existing energy programs, and upgrade diesel generating facilities in off-grid communities.



Of the 80 communities in Canada’s three territories, 53 rely exclusively on diesel generators for electrical power. In Nunavut, petroleum products are even more of a necessity. The territory is fully isolated from the North American power grid, and all its communities depend on diesel for power generation, home heating and transportation. The fuel must be shipped in by sea during the summer to meet the territory’s energy needs for the balance of each year.

“The truth is that diesel is reliable,” says Patterson. “It’s important in communities and critical for the renewable resource economy, hunting and fishing. The technology is user-friendly, and every community has oil-burner mechanics.”

“We are at the infancy of developing our tremendous hydroelectric potential in Nunavut.”

For the Senator, aging power infrastructure is the most pressing concern. As of 2014, 17 of 25 diesel-generating plants in Nunavut had reached the end of their service life. Fire destroyed Pangnirtung’s power station in April 2015, triggering a local state of emergency and underscoring the vital need for back-up power in a region where prolonged winter temperatures of -40 degrees Celsius are not unusual.

A challenge to all of Canada

Yukon, Northwest Territories, and Nunavut account for 40 percent of Canada’s total landmass, but fewer than 120,000 people live there.

Yet focusing on the disparity of these numbers is short sighted, particularly in light of the geopolitical importance of the North and its immense resource potential. For many who live there, development is a national challenge, not just a territorial one.

Natan Obed, President of Canada’s national Inuit organization, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, reminded participants at a June 2016 Economic Club of Canada event of the monumental effort associated with building Canada’s transcontinental railroad in the 19th century. The project had its detractors and took many years to deliver a return on investment—but the long view eventually confirmed the railroad’s value.

“We have not finished building this country,” observed Obed in a clear call for social equity and sustained investment to set the North on a path to self-sufficiency.

Senator Patterson agrees. “The North has never had the political clout to advocate for its share of basic infrastructure. It’s up to Canada to undertake the nation-building work that’s needed in the territories.”

He hopes federal infrastructure funding will be the source of some relief. The First Nations Infrastructure Fund, for example, was bolstered in Budget 2016 with the promise of an additional $255 million over two years to support investments in a range of projects, including energy systems.

Exploring alternatives

According to Senator Patterson, Nunavut has explored energy options in detail. The territory’s remote communities currently lack the skilled human resources needed to maintain sophisticated wind and solar installations, although these technologies may be installed soon at some mine sites. Solar power is hindered by the seasons; some communities experience 24 hours of darkness for months at a time during the winter.

“We are at the infancy of developing our tremendous hydroelectric potential in Nunavut,” says Patterson, who has long advocated for harnessing the territory’s river resources. While some efforts to explore hydro alternatives have faltered, Patterson is encouraged by the results of a recent scoping study for the transmission of hydroelectric power from Manitoba to Nunavut’s southernmost Kivalliq region. Commissioned by the Kivalliq Inuit Association on behalf of the Hudson Bay Roundtable, the study found that the nearly 900-km long high-voltage line is economically viable if there are long-term mining clients—a likely outcome given the region’s rich mineral deposits.


A hybrid solution

The Institute for Sustainable Energy at the University of Waterloo issued a report on behalf of World Wildlife Fund Canada in May 2016 concerning the feasibility of renewable energy sources in 13 Nunavut communities. The study identified five communities where a strong business case could be made for the deployment of renewable energy—namely wind and solar systems.

The study’s results underscore the need to diversify energy sources and provide backup for proven fuels. Where individual technologies may fail to meet the needs of remote communities, hybrid systems may succeed by bringing together the benefits of various energy types. Colville Lake, NWT—a town of less than 200 people—is a case in point. In late 2015, the town installed an $8-million solar–diesel hybrid system. Local authorities hope the system’s solar-charged batteries will provide most electrical power during the summer, and enable the community to fall back on the reliability of diesel generators as the main energy source in the depth of winter.


Building the incentive to conserve

Senator Patterson believes energy conservation and efficiency programs could be of immense benefit to the territories.

The Government of Nunavut pays approximately 80 percent of all territorial energy costs. The Nunavut Housing Corporation (NHC) provides approximately 70 percent of housing. Nearly 55 percent of that stock is social housing, for which NHC pays almost all heating costs and subsidizes electricity above six cents per kWh.

“The heavy subsidization means citizens have almost no awareness of the cost of energy and therefore no incentive to conserve,” says Patterson. In fact, energy conservation and efficiency is one of four themes of the Government of Nunavut’s official energy strategy, Ikummatiit, released in 2007 and intended to guide policy through 2020.

In preparing Powering Canada’s Territories, Patterson and his senate committee colleagues found a lack of collaboration among the many federal departments that have energy conservation initiatives.

“There are national programs,” says Patterson, “but we recommended that there be a northern knowledge hub to focus on territorial energy issues.”

Forging their own future

Implicit in the senate committee’s recommendation is the requirement for a clear understanding of the truly unique cultural, climatic and geographic conditions in Canada’s North. Energy solutions must be informed by northern leadership and expertise—and crafted with caution to avoid the unintended consequences of denying northerners energy options that may be comparatively easy to forego for Canadians in southern latitudes.

The low carbon future is no less an aspiration in the North, it is simply tempered by the harsh realities of a place where equitable access to energy is not a matter of convenience, but survival.