North

MLA says N.W.T. power corporation should get into district heating business

N.W.T. MLA Rylund Johnson says he thinks the territorial power corporation could bring in new revenue while reducing the territory's greenhouse gas emissions by getting into a new area of business: district heating.

'No one is better suited than the power corporation to direct this work'

Rylund Johnson would like to see the Northwest Territories Power Corporation clarify its relationship to renewable energy. "Is it an ally in fighting climate change? Or a corporation determined to protect its bottom line at the expense of keeping our communities on diesel and at the expense of our ratepayers?" (Mario De Ciccio/Radio-Canada)

N.W.T. MLA Rylund Johnson says he thinks the Northwest Territories Power Corporation could bring in new revenue while reducing the territory's greenhouse gas emissions by getting into a new area of business: district heating.

District heating is when multiple buildings are connected to a single source of heat, usually fuelled by renewable energy. An example is the wood pellet-fuelled district heating system in Yellowknife which uses a central wood-pellet furnace to heat the Fieldhouse, the multiplex, the fire hall and the public works garage. 

"District heating has been proven to work," Johnson said in the legislature Thursday. "It comes with cost savings and it decreases emissions." 

He added that district heating could be a new source of revenue for the power corporation. But, he observed, the work can't be done without coordination. Most examples in the North occur in buildings connected to a single owner. 

"Even if a community gets 100 per cent federal funding and connects all of the residences in that community to district heat, they would then need to hire multiple staff to operate and establish a utility," he said. "What we are left with is proven technologies, that lower the cost of living for our residents, with no one willing to implement them." 

Not our mandate

Pressed in the legislature, Diane Archie, the minister responsible for NTPC, said it won't be expanding its services anytime soon. 

"NTPC's core mandate is to provide safe, economic, efficient and reliable electricity services," she said. "We want NTPC to focus on this task.

"Unlike the electricity system, which is a natural monopoly," she said, "in areas like the heating market, where there is competition, it is best to let the private sector meet any market demand, and let the market take any risks with these ventures."

One challenge with moving away from fossil fuels in the N.W.T. is that anytime the power corporation loses customers, such as with people who use solar panels, it has to raise its rates for the remaining customers, said Johnson.

That complicates the corporation's relationship to renewable power. 

"Is it an ally in fighting climate change?" Johnson asked. "Or a corporation determined to protect its bottom line at the expense of keeping our communities on diesel and at the expense of our ratepayers? Does it's mandate include devolving energy sovereignty to Indigenous governments, or is it determined to maintain a public monopoly at all costs?"

A history of district heating

Mark Heyck is the executive director of the Arctic Energy Alliance, an organization dedicated to helping reduce the costs and environmental impacts of energy in the N.W.T. 

He says Yellowknife was founded on district heating: his dad operated the boiler room at Con Mine that heated water that was piped into radiators in all the homes, as well as the industrial buildings. Giant Mine also ran off a single oil-burning boiler. 

"District heating is a really efficient way to provide space heating to multiple structures," Heyck said. 

"It's way more efficient than having numerous individual mechanical systems to provide heat in each individual building." 

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