March 5 may feel like a lifetime ago, but just last month a pair of scientists took a tour of the Beaufort Delta to discuss and exchange ideas on energy security as part of the Community Appropriate Sustainable Energy Security (CASES) partnership.
Directed by the University of Saskatchewan’s Dr. Greg Poelzer and Dr. Bram Noble in partnership with 15 communities throughout Canada, the United States, Norway and Sweden, the initiative aims to help Northern and Indigenous communities develop sustainable energy options by sharing the wide variety of options available for generating heat and electricity.
“We kind of come from a school of thought that all hands on deck is a better approach,” said Poelzer during a March 5 meeting in Inuvik hosted by the Gwich’in Tribal Council. “Ours is a coalition of the willing for unbreakable energy.
“One of the big things we’re talking about is what the value proposition of energy is. Traditionally, you ask if something is a feasible project, it’s always looked at what’s the price per kilowatt hour. But if you bring in biomass and now there’s five men and women that are involved in harvesting biomass instead of social assistance, it might cost you five cents per kilowatt hour more to produce that energy, but in the bigger scheme of things you’re probably ahead 10 or 15 cents.”
Describing himself as a brutal pragmatist, Poelzer noted energy security and reducing greenhouse gas emissions went hand-in-hand, since moving energy around the planet often takes energy in itself.
However, he noted keeping with the status quo was an even worse idea.
“Fossil fuels is a bit like barbecuing inside of your house with charcoal briquettes — not a good idea long term,” he said, noting renewable energy sources like biomass and solar have found great use in the Arctic. “The North has two massive advantages — it’s cold and electricity hates heat. Heat just bleeds efficiency. The second is the albedo effect of snow. It’s almost like supercharging. They’re getting as good or better efficiency in northern Alaska as they get off the panels in Germany.
“So my dream is to see Canada become as progressive as Sarah Palin’s Alaska.”
Instead, Poelzer and Noble said they want to help communities develop energy profiles and assessments to locate potential local sources of energy where possible as the first part of seven years of community engagement and three-day forums, with the 2024 forum being planned for Inuvik.
“Right now we’re in year zero,” said Noble. “We’re hoping as we build on the project it will become a bit of a model and grow. We’ll bring in other communities and players as we go along, but what we’re starting with is a core group to get some momentum.
“In terms of this first year, we’re focused on getting a baseline, in terms of How is Energy used in the community? What are the types of energy resources available? What capacity exists? So we’re doing that across all the communities. Then about a year from now we’re bringing representatives from each of these communities across the four countries to Alaska.
“The communities in Alaska, Sweden and Norway are a lot further down this path. So getting those communities to share with Canadian communities about what worked, what didn’t and building a shared connection.”
Away from modern — and not so modern — energy grids further south, northern communities often rely on importing diesel to keep the lights on, which is both a potent greenhouse gas and expensive to cart in.
In fact, according to Poelzer’s numbers throughout the circumpolar north there are 1,492 off-grid settlements, housing 1,642,095 people.
And while the environment the communities might be dealing with may have similarities, most have their own community needs.
“We want to get local youth hired and working on this project so they will not only pick up some work but also can give back to their own community,” said Noble, noting another branch of the project was the Youth Climate Lab which hosted a series of workshops between Inuvik and the University of Saskatchewan. “If you can instil a passion for change there, that’s really going to be key.”
Given that COVID-19 had made travel very difficult and often unwise since his tour, the consultation portion of the first year of the project is effectively completed, but with the possibilities of disrupted economic activity and movement, energy security is as relevant as ever.
Noble noted further outreach between the University and Beaufort communities would happen throughout the next seven years.
“You can really start turning the dial when we all start working together,” said Noble. “Regulatory structure, technology and economics aside, if you can get the youth engaged and get them excited; you’re going to drive a lot of change.”