Northern utilities unite to seek alternatives to diesel power generation

Four Northern utilities are pooling their money to research renewable energy in Canada's North, with the goal of reducing the amount of diesel used in remote communities.

Yukon Energy, ATCO Electric, NTPC, Qulliq will now pool research funds, citing 'economies of scale'

A diesel power generation plant in Inuvik, N.W.T. Four Northern utilities are pooling their money to research ways to reduce the use of diesel in isolated-grid communities. (Philippe Morin/CBC)

Four Northern utilities have announced a joint venture to research renewable energy. 

Yukon Energy, ATCO Electric, the Northwest Territories Power Corporation and Qulliq Energy are each pledging $50,000 a year for five years. 

The utilities' funding will be matched by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, and the research will be coordinated by a new post at Yukon College, called an Industrial Research Chair.  

Michael Ross has been named the college's new Northern Energy Innovation Chair and is set to begin a term of five years. 

Ross said the goal is to reduce diesel use across Canada's North, and listed six priorities for the new research project, including: 

  • reducing the use of diesel through renewable energy; 
  • researching energy storage such as batteries;
  • finding ways to reduce diesel use at existing generators; 
  • comparing utility costs across the North;
  • researching 'what technologies can support the public in going off grid";  
  • and researching smart meters which collect hourly data on energy use.

The goal is to host some experiments in communities — but that doesn't mean that diesel plants will be unplugged anytime soon.

"We want to advance the Northern energy industry," Ross said, "but we don't want to disrupt reliability."

The project will focus on renewable energy solutions such as wind, solar, geothermal and small-scale hydroelectricity. 

When asked about the possibility of nuclear energy on Monday, Ross said it had not been entirely discounted, but that none of the four funding utilities had expressed interest.

'Economies of scale'

Andrew Hall, president and CEO of Yukon Energy, said the new venture will allow for more efficient research.

"It's important to note that we, as small isolated-grid utilities, have a small number of customers and a small rate base. It's a real challenge for us individually to support research of this nature. So pooling our resources provides economies of scale," he said.

Hall said common research may also help with applications for federal funding, as there is more data to prove the viability of renewables.

The new Industrial Research Chair will be based at Yukon College, which already tests equipment such as solar panels on site. (Philippe Morin/CBC)

Research publicly available

Much of the venture's groundwork will be done by students and existing research agencies, including Yukon College, the Northwest Territories' Aurora College, and Nunavut Arctic College.

Janet Moodie, Yukon College's interim president and vice chancellor, pledged the research will be openly shared "for the benefit of all Canadians."

"This information will be made available to the public through peer-reviewed papers, reports, community presentations and more," she said. 

Yukon College already hosts the Cold Climate Innovation Centre, which works with funding agencies like the Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency. That centre researches alternative energy, agriculture and efficient building design for Northern climates.