A burning question

Taming Nunavut’s addiction to fossil fuels



Next to groping in a dark sealift container acting out a mock rescue, touring Iqaluit’s power plant must endure as a high point in every rookie firefighter’s apprenticeship. There’s nothing like a peek into the furnace of artificial light to kindle a healthy dread of danger.

Power-plant checks make practical sense, of course, since able rescue workers have to anticipate catastrophe. And the risk of inferno always looms here, where oil-fueled generators burn round the clock, seven days a week.

Most Canadians who live north of 60 depend on imported diesel power. Generating stations are as much a part of life today as seal-oil lamps and dog sleds were a half-century ago.

They burn undying in communities across the Arctic like a vast terrestrial constellation: ungainly, utterly vital shrines to Canada’s fossil-fuel addiction.

In Nunavut, the addiction is total. Nunavut’s 27,000 inhabitants burned a staggering 36 million litres of imported fuel last year to brighten homes, chill food, cook meals, wash dishes, launder clothes, surf the Net and watch television. Even more was burned — 58 million litres — keeping warm. And that’s not counting the three million litres of gasoline used to power the growing numbers of boats, snowmobiles and cars.

In a land of harsh extremes — long, dark winters and brief, brilliant summers — petroleum is like sunshine in a bottle, the great energy equalizer in a nation of uneven strengths. But at what price?

This past March, the government released a landmark study on Nunavut’s voracious hunger for fossil fuels called Meeting Nunavut’s Energy Needs, also known as “Ikuma II.” The report predicts that by 2004, one-fifth of the Nunavut government’s $700-million annual budget will be spent importing, storing and distributing fuel.

“That’s a huge amount of our budget, and it’s going to continue to rise,” Ed Picco, Nunavut’s newly appointed energy minister, gravely predicts.

Subsidies discourage conservation

The economic cost of Nunavut’s oil habit could hardly be more understated. If generous government subsidies didn’t exist, it would probably be cheaper — and a whole lot more efficient — to stoke home furnaces with wads of $20 bills.

Diesel power, many energy critics point out, also entails costs for northern Canadians, particularly aboriginal people, that can’t be tallied strictly in money terms. Households, hamlets and towns built to run on energy produced elsewhere must bend to forces beyond their control, the very picture of a people sapped of self-reliance.

And then there’s the environment.

Burning diesel fuel contributes to global warming by pumping carbon-dioxide, a “greenhouse gas,” and a host of other nasty pollutants into the Earth’s atmosphere. Canada’s polar eco-system is particularly sensitive to this pollution.

Not surprisingly, threat of climate change alarms Inuit leaders, who have vociferously backed international efforts such as the Kyoto Protocol, to curb greenhouse-gas emissions. The truth is, however, that northerners today do not simply bear the environmental burden of oil-thirsty industrialized states — they also magnify it.

The federal government calculates that energy use in Nunavut generates more than 500,000 tonnes of carbon-dioxide pollution each year. And this in a territory that has yet to embrace a single important industrial development since its creation in 1999.

In comparison, the Northwest Territories, with a history of mining, produced more than a million tonnes of greenhouse gases last year.

“We’re not doing anything for global warming or anything for environmental health by continuing this outmoded way of providing energy,” Picco says frankly. “We have to look at alternatives.” With Ottawa now pledging to cut Canada’s total greenhouse-gas emissions, there may never be a more urgent time to do this.

In theory, there’s no reason why all 26 Nunavut communities couldn’t begin today to supply at least some of their power from renewable sources close at hand.

The Ikuma II report specifically calls for “a comprehensive effort … to identify and develop hydro-power opportunities.” Manitoba’s provincially owned utility, Manitoba Hydro, has been working with the Nunavut Power Corp. for over a year to study the cost of building hydro-electric dams in the Kivalliq region and transporting electricity over power lines to northern Manitoba.

“What we would hope to do there,” Picco says, “is not only supply the domestic markets in Nunavut, but actually be a major exporter of hydro power to the South.”

Give wind a chance?

Some analysts believe that wind energy, a centuries-old source of mechanical power now converted to electricity in many parts of the world, holds much promise in Nunavut, though it has been slow to fire the imagination of public-utility managers.

Only a handful of wind-powered turbines were ever built in the Arctic and they were largely dismissed by diesel jockeys as whimsical toys.

One, at Kuujjuaq in Nunavik, was recently dismantled by Hydro-Québec. Another, at Sachs Harbour, NWT, broke a couple of years ago and hasn’t been fixed. The lone turbine at Rankin Inlet still whirls a trickle of current into the local grid, but is more a science-fair novelty than a working machine.

Of course, whether or not wind-power is suitable for the Arctic can’t be gleaned from such half-hearted experiments. “One turbine,” quipped a bureaucrat in the territorial government, “is not a wind farm. It’s a turbine. It’s like calling a tree a forest.”

The case for renewable alternative energy in Nunavut could be strengthened if authorities adopt a more exact cost-accounting approach.

For instance, although the Government of Nunavut pays for building and upgrading tank farms used to store diesel, these depreciation costs don’t show up when electricity rates are set. These and other so-called “hidden subsidies” are believed to amount to more than $10 million a year.

“Right now,” says Peter Scott, who helped draft the Ikuma II recommendations, “the cost to deliver power in Iqaluit is 31¢ per kilowatt hour. If it’s determined that the true cost is 40¢ a kilowatt hour, and we can put wind power in here for 35¢, or do hydro for 22¢, then it makes a hell of a lot more sense.

“Once you know the true cost, certainly it makes the alternatives much more attractive.”

Mention of wind energy in Nunavut is far less prone to elicit jeers these days. The Nunavut Power Corp. recently invited proposals from companies willing and able to build real wind-energy supply systems, clusters of modern turbines able to provide a large share of communities’ electricity needs.

“There are dozens of thousands of megawatts of wind power now being fed into the grid in various parts of the world,” according to Ron Alward, a senior energy advisor with Natural Resources Canada.

Alward believes wind energy could cut diesel use in the Arctic by up to 60 or 70 per cent — provided enough windmills are built. Contrary to popular belief, lack of constant wind doesn’t rule it out as a source of power. Modern control systems make it possible to integrate wind energy with existing diesel power.

“You could take a community like Rankin Inlet,” Alward explains, “and if the wind is blowing, you could have windmills there that provide 100 per cent of the power. When the wind’s not blowing, diesel takes over completely. But in between, the diesel is cycling on and off, or putting out less or more power depending on how much wind is available.

“It would pay for itself, probably in a period of 10 to 12 years.”

Even if switching to water- and wind-powered electricity proves feasible, energy planners will almost certainly need to promote better energy-conservation practices if Nunavut is going to cut down on fossil fuels. This is because electricity uses just 25 per cent of the territory’s energy supply; space and water heating drain most of the rest.

“Can you build more energy-efficient homes? Absolutely,” says Aleta Fowler, a researcher with the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. (CMHC) in Yellowknife. “But can we reasonably build the highest quality, most energy-efficient homes? And the answer is, ‘Well, where do you look for the dollar trade-off?’”

Triple-glazed windows, for example, retain heat better than double-glazed windows, but they also drive up construction costs. Builders rarely incorporate them because demand isn’t there; consumers, after all, don’t pay the full cost of the energy they use anyway. Why would they pay more to save oil?

Canadian-made solar air-heating panels can slash oil costs for large public buildings, but the longer pay-back period is thought to discourage politicians, who prefer spending on items that they think will more readily help them get re-elected.

The department of public works nevertheless installed a 75-square-metre section of gymnasium wall at Allituq High School in Rankin Inlet last January at a cost of $77,000. Projected annual savings: $10,000.

“There are people in the [public] housing corporations who actually upgrade their designs virtually every year, trying to find better ways to build more energy-efficient homes,” Fowler notes. “But the reality is that most of your energy dollars are being spent in inefficient production of energy.”

Power plants grossly inefficient

Arctic electric plants are grossly inefficient: two-thirds of the oil burned each year — about $12 million worth — gets lost as heat. Authorities in Nunavut now favour construction of “waste-heat recovery” systems, whereby heat energy from electric-power stations is diverted into buildings. A few communities already practise this type of conservation.

In Taloyoak, waste energy is used to keep the hamlet’s fresh-water supply line from freezing. In Sanikiluaq, the energy is used to heat a local school. And waste heat from Iqaluit’s own power plant will be piped into a new regional hospital slated for construction in the capital next year.

Fowler suspects that still more energy — and money — could be saved if water were managed more efficiently in the Arctic. Piped services are virtually non-existent in Nunavut due to permafrost. Households rely on municipal trucks to deliver fresh water and cart away sewage.

“They only last about seven years before you need to invest in a new truck, and they take up an enormous amount of the fuel that’s brought into the tank farms every year,” Fowler points out. “So when you’re talking about water and sewer, a lot of the cost is in the very types of energy that you don’t want to be using, which is diesel fuel.”

The CMHC estimates that the true cost of delivering subsidized water and sewage services to Arctic households is about 125 times more than in southern Canada.

One study pegged the cost of water use in Repulse Bay at $11,000 a year per household. Which is why the CMHC has begun promoting a new technology known as “onsite waste-water recovery,” miniature treatment plants that reduce the need for trucked water and sewage services.

“If you can free up money that you’re spending on utilities,” Fowler says, “you can put it into home improvement.”

In Cape Dorset, municipal officials have begun a detailed study of all the ways in which the community currently uses energy and the costs associated with its supply. Housing authorities are also planning a pilot project in which 17 households will reuse waste-water treated onsite.

When finished, the community will be able to use the data to compare the total real cost of using energy stored in fossil fuels with the cost of alternatives. “There are so many options out there right now,” Fowler says, “but they’ve got to be on a community-specific basis, because communities differ so much.”

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