TORONTO – For many years, the residents of Huatacondo, Chile, relied on a single diesel generator for their electricity. But even with the generator, the community only had access to electricity for 10 hours a day.
That changed when a local mining company invested in renewable energy for Huatacondo. The community now runs on a microgrid that includes a 150kW diesel generator, 22kW tracking solar PV system (to supply solar power), 3kW wind turbine and a 170kWh battery. Together they provide Huatacondo’s residents with access to electricity at any time of the day and their consumption of diesel fuel has fallen by 50 percent.
“Young families are now returning to the community because they see business opportunities,” said Claudio Cañizares, a professor of electrical engineering at the University of Waterloo and the associate director of the Waterloo Institute for Sustainable Energy (WISE).
Remote Arctic communities may seem far removed from Chile’s mountains, but they face many of the same challenges, said Cañizares. And they could harvest similar benefits.
According to a new report, some Nunavut communities could cut their fossil-fuel use by as much as 50 percent by switching to a mix of renewables, without raising their costs.
Currently all 25 Nunavut communities rely on diesel-powered generators. Many of these generators are old and are due for replacement.
The report, which was released by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF-Canada), identified five Nunavut communities where diesel consumption could be cut by at least one-third by incorporating a mix of solar and wind energy for the same price as operating and maintaining the old generator.
“Given the current cost of renewables, this is the right time to look at the alternatives and replacing diesel,” said Cañizares, one of the authors of the report.
Iqaluit, the capital of Nunavut, could cut its carbon dioxide emissions from electricity generation by more than 42 percent if it blended wind and solar into its energy mix.
The community of Sanikiluaq, on the Belcher Islands in Hudson Bay, had the highest potential reduction in carbon dioxide emissions (53.2 percent) and the largest potential savings on operation and maintenance costs (44.9 percent). The community could generate more than 52 percent of its energy from renewables, according to the report.
Rankin Inlet, Arviat and Baker Lake were the other three communities identified as having a strong business case for renewable energy deployment.
“This study shows that renewable energy uptake in northern communities is a good investment, that it will pay off with cost savings from reduced diesel energy operations and maintenance costs,” said Paul Crowley, the vice-president of Arctic conservation at WWF-Canada.
Dependence on diesel fuel has high environmental and financial costs, said Cañizares. In addition to greenhouse gas emissions and the local air pollution that comes with using diesel fuel to generate electricity, there is a risk of fuel spills and leaks that can contaminate soil and water.
When a fuel line at a Canadian Forces Station in Alert, Nunavut, ruptured in 2006, 22,000 liters (5,800 gallons) of diesel spilled onto the ground. It took six years to remove the effects of the spill using soil microorganisms to break down the diesel fuel.
The cost of the fuel and getting it to a community can hinder a community’s development, said Cañizares.
The off-grid community of Kasabonika First Nation in northern Ontario needed to build more homes to ease overcrowding, but it was already operating at full capacity. Even if new homes were built, they couldn’t be connected, said Cañizares. “The development for the community was stifled because they couldn’t develop the grid fast enough,” he said.
“This is not only about climate change and reducing carbon dioxide, but it impacts the very survival of our communities,” Okalik Eegeesiak, chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Council, said at the Arctic Circle meeting in Reykjavik in October 2015. Eegeesiak said that the high costs of energy in some communities have created “energy migrants.”
Nunavut communities are in need of an estimated 3,000 housing units to address the housing shortage in the North. In April, members of the Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples surveyed housing in Nunavut, Nunavik and Labrador. The committee is now preparing a report on the housing crisis.
WWF-Canada and WISE will do an in-depth feasibility study on the five communities, in the hope of seeing large-scale renewable energy projects in at least three northern communities by 2020.
Investments in renewable energy in northern Canada and Alaska have shown that renewable energy technologies can work in cold environments. “I don’t believe technical challenges are the main obstacle to introducing fully renewable options into communities,” said Cañizares.
The recent federal budget has pegged $10.7 million over two years to develop renewable energy projects in indigenous and northern communities that currently rely on diesel fuel.
“Renewables are compatible economically and technically, and the government is willing to look at this issue more seriously,” said Cañizares. “The combination could be the tipping point … I’m hopeful.”