Former Yellowknife North MLA Rylund Johnson hopes there are more mines headed to the Northwest Territories, but has concerns about how those mines will be powered.
Johnson raised his concerns at an Oct. 6 sitting of the legislative assembly, posing a range of questions about the energy options for future mines in the territory.
Some of his most notable questions surrounded longstanding plans to expand the Taltson generating station, a hydroelectric plant. Those plans were first suggested as a way to power the territory’s diamond mines roughly 25 years ago, but today, when all of those mines are moving closer to the end of their lifespans, the expansion still hasn’t gotten off the ground.
“Is Taltson the answer, Mr. Speaker?” Johnson asked. “It might be. It is clearly a billion-dollar-plus sized project, but why did it not proceed before? What were the consequences of it not proceeding? Well, for one, the three diamond mines that now have to create their own power systems are likely now facing, sooner than not, end of life because they have to instead incur the high costs of trucking diesel up the winter road. What about the future for critical minerals and metals? There’s major demand coming, but they’re expecting to be able to have green energy. Well, how are we going to supply it, Mr. Speaker?”
At this point, Taltson is likely no longer an option for NWT’s diamond mines. The expansion would take years to complete, and all three mines are expected to cease operations over the next decade.
Whether the Taltson expansion could be an option for powering future mines remains to be seen.
Gerald Panneton, chairman and CEO of Vancouver-based gold exploration company Gold Terra, has his doubts.
In 2021, Gold Terra negotiated the option to purchase Yellowknife’s former Con mine in hopes of restarting gold mining around the city, provided enough of the precious metal is found to justify the project. The company recently completed one of the deepest exploration drill holes under the workings of the old mine. Panneton was in Yellowknife for the completion of that hole, which he called a “technical success.”
During his visit, the Gold Terra CEO also explored some of the energy options for this potential project, which would be able to pull some but not all of its power from Yellowknife’s existing hydroelectric grid. Taltson is far from the top of his list, as he doesn’t believe it will be expanded until there are mines in the area in need of power.
“To bring energy from Taltson all the way to Yellowknife, it’s complicated and expensive, so you need customers,” he said. “You need to secure demand to be able to operate.
“You can go around and see which projects are going to get built [to justify expanding Taltson], but until they’re built, you’re not sure if the customer is real.
“It needs customers to support building it.”
Solar and wind
With Taltson seemingly off the table, Panneton and his team have been looking at other means to provide power to their potential Yellowknife project, with a specific emphasis on green solutions amid rising pressure from governments and investors to curb carbon emissions.
Two oft discussed possibilities are solar and wind power.
Johnson told the legislative assembly that both options “come at astonishingly high price per megawatt,” and also noted that they are “intermittent,” meaning they are dependent on local weather conditions.
Panneton seems to agree as it pertains to wind.
“We could consider wind, but there’s not enough wind, and when you hear what’s happening in different projects where they used wind, it’s not straightforward,” he said. “You need big towers, you have to go 90 metres in the air, so the whole project is more costly.”
When it comes to solar, he appears more optimistic, as solar panels require less space than wind turbines.
“For example, I can use part of the side of the Con mine to put a solar farm, which will give more power in the summer if the water reservoir is low,” he said. “There is already power, there is already a grid in place for distribution in Yellowknife. Can we supplement that grid? One of the ideas that we have is a solar farm.”
There are other green power options for mines around Yellowknife and the wider NWT, according to Panneton, including liquified natural gas (LNG), which he contends is “not a big polluter.”
All of available options, he maintains, are deserving of consideration.
“LNG is not a bad option to go away from diesel,” he said. “I think every option needs to be put on the table when you look at [powering mines].”
As far Johnson as is concerned, the best option may actually be hydro – but not in relation to the long discussed Taltson expansion.
“I love hydro,” he told the legislative assembly in October. “I believe it is the future to getting to carbon net zero. I love hydro for the Northwest Territories. I am so glad for the mines that came before and built our hydro power. We need more hydro, Mr. Speaker.”
“We have forgot that we actually have 10,000 megawatts of undeveloped hydro potential in this territory. We have the Bear, La Marte, Lockhart, Mackenzie, Snare, Snowdrift, Taltson, and Yellowknife rivers, Mr. Speaker, all with undeveloped hydro potential, and no one has ever even talked about those in 25 years because they got so laser focused on a project that they have repeatedly failed to build.”
For more stories from NWT and Nunavut Mining 2023, click this link: https://www.nnsl.com/special-feature-publications/special-feature-pdfs/2023-mining-supplement/