Recently I had an opportunity to talk with an engineer for a large company designing and building solar installations in Alberta. He reported that the capital cost of these large arrays is under $1.00/ watt. At that rate, the raw cost of the electricity from solar is around 4 cents/ kWh.
Compare that to what people are paying in Yellowknife at 30 cents/kWh, and one can understand that there are less expensive ways for power in the North than what’s offered by Northwest Territories Power Corporation (NTPC) or Northland Utilities (NUL). Now before the naysayers jump all over this article, let’s look at the Northern numbers in some detail.
Yellowknife’s solar power potential is about 85 percent of the best of Alberta locations. In Yellowknife solar panels can generate 1,100 kWh per installed KW. Local installers are offering to put it on houses at $3.00/ watt. With a good installation that can maximize the resource ( south facing, no shading), 1,000 watts can replace $330 of utility power every year. Solar panels will last 25 years at a minimum: attaching the cost of a 5,000 watt array to your house mortgage will save the homeowner $1,000 per year. The numbers are the same for business owners.
NTPC and the GNWT are not very big on solar. The latest plan is to spend a billion dollars expanding the Taltson Hydro project and build hydro lines North of Great Slave Lake to link to the northern grid and service the mines. At the same time, the government has put severe limits on how much solar power can be connected to the grid (no more than 5000 watts and no rebates), by citizens and businesses in any area that already has hydro power (YK, Behchoko, Fort Resolution, Fort Smith and Hay River). On the one hand, (the GNWT/NTPC state the need for more energy, on the other hand they rule out the cheapest and simplest option. The ridiculous amount the Taltson project will cost will do nothing to reduce the cost of living and will tie up capital that could be invested in many other areas to make northern life better.
Let’s talk about the two major issues that are used to throw cold water on solar and wind power. Some days the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow. There is less solar in winter months (not none), and too much in the summer. This is all true but not insurmountable and to some extent a big opportunity. Let’s think of 5000 electric vehicles in the NWT by 2030. That alone would be justification for solar and would also provide a fairly large storage medium. We want people to go electric in the North. We already have a subsidy for electric cars.
What we need is large scale utility type storage to manage the extremes of these two problems. Interestingly, the new National Hydrogen Strategy has a remote regions component which may be the “Final Solution”. Production of hydrogen through electrolysis is a simple way to store electrical energy and the development of fuel cells has given the world a great way to turn it back into electricity. Hydrogen is transportable and can be converted to a liquid fuel.
In the NWT, we can start off in the right direction by understanding where we need to go. To wean ourselves from the half billion dollars of fossil fuels we use each year, we need to increase dramatically the production of green electricity. Energy is not bad, pollution is. We need to consider how we can produce electricity for all our needs. Transportation includes marine and aviation along with vehicles. Heating is another necessity to northern living that can be produced from electricity. Through heat pumps, we can make electrical heat much more affordable. The storage of heat produced from electricity is straightforward and can be another solution to store renewable energy.
What we can and should do now:
First, encourage the development of private and community ownership of solar energy in all our communities. This energy can be grid connected, and regardless of size, offer an economic rate for any electricity that is entered into the hydro grid or any of the small community diesel grids.
Second, develop a program to utilize more excess energy in the Taltson electrical grid, by offering residential rates for electric heating and by converting all public housing in the South Slave to electrical heating. NTPC presently offers a rate that is equivalent to 75 per cent of fuel oil costs to commercial customers. That at least should be available to residents.
Third, engage with the federal government to participate in the development of hydrogen for remote communities. Specifically consider the potential for a hydrogen facility to utilize excess power from the Taltson grid.
These are three ideas that can start the process of moving off fossil fuels. They will add to our local economies, replacing imported fuels. There is much to be done for the future, we need to start now with what we can do ourselves.