Whither diesel: What if the water never comes back?

Whither diesel: What if the water never comes back?
Cutline: Low water at the Snare Hydro System has caused a power shortage that has cost the GNWT nearly $50 million in diesel in the last two years.Photo courtesy of NTPC.

The GNWT has spent almost $50 million in two years covering the cost of diesel burned in place of hydroelectricity.

Both times it was called a stopgap measure, designed to prevent the Northwest Territories Power Corporation from having to place a rate rider of up to 25 per cent on the bills of residents. Michael Miltenberger, minister of finance and environment, was quick to point out that the severe drought causing or contributing to the low water levels at the Snare and Bluefish hydro systems is wreaking economic havoc in jurisdictions up and down the Pacific Coast and across the Prairies.

Fair enough, but the drought is in its fourth year, which begs the question: How long can the GNWT cover the cost of powering the NWT with massive cheques for diesel?

What if the water never comes back?

Things have come back. It’s always a flood-drought cycle.
—  Jim Sparling, GNWT climate change programs manager

Right out of the gate, regular MLAs including Daryl Dolynny and Bob Bromley were critical of the $29.7 million payment to NTPC announced earlier this month, and have been on Premier Bob McLeod’s case about alternatives for the long-term. Both believe the GNWT should be investing in renewable energy.

Energy costs are the “black hole question of the day” for the NWT, Dolynny told the Journal on Sept. 3. Bromley, who isn’t seeking re-election, told the CBC the GNWT has sunk millions of dollars into one-off solutions with no return, money that would be better spent subsidizing wind and solar projects.

“We are hoping the water is going to come back, and through some miracle all the costs are going to go down or something,” he said. “We have done nothing in terms of investment.”

Bromley questioned the premier on the subject in the Legislature in March.

McLeod replied that the government was, at the time, on schedule to respond to the recommendations made at the Energy Charette – a large-scale stakeholder forum – held in November.

“At the same time we are doing a tremendous amount in developing alternative sources of energy,” McLeod said. “We are the leaders in the country when it comes to biomass and other forms of renewable energy. I don’t think that should be discounted.”

Bromley told the Journal on Sept. 21 solar makes more sense than diesel and the tens of millions of dollars being shelled out for fossil fuels could pay for a sustainable solution if it was instead spent on subsidies for consumers.

“Bumping up the subsidy to convince individuals to install solar could easily offset the cost of diesel and would create that benefit for the next 25 years, all the solar equipment is guaranteed for 25 years now,” he said. “There is a modest subsidy but, if you reduced the payback from ten to seven or even five years, you could very well get enough to replace diesel in that year and every year after. We need that kind of thinking, but it’s very disappointing that we haven’t done that feasibility. The Minister is on track but the government is very slow to do the work and it’s frustrating.”

Miltenberger told the Journal on Sept. 17 that the government knows paying $30 million for diesel every year is not sustainable, economically or ecologically.

“We are hard at work looking at alternatives in terms of the generation capacity in the Yellowknife area,” and diesel-dependent communities around the NWT. “What new technologies are out there?”

The second Renewables in Remote Microgrids conference took place in the capital Sept. 15-17 (the first took place in Toronto in 2013).

It was sponsored by Environment and Natural Resources, Bullfrog Power, the Pembina Institute and Natural Resources Canada and attracted more than 100 “leading experts, community members, manufacturers and researchers” from across the United States and Canada.

A major focus was helping remote indigenous communities get off diesel. Miltenberger said there are about 300 places in northern Canada that could benefit from green technology in this way.

“We know we have to spend as a government tens upon tens of millions of dollars in the coming years to switch to renewables and get off diesel,” he said. “We’ve been working on that for the last three or four years.”

He added the government has in the works an expression of interest for green projects on the scale of one to ten megawatts in the Yellowknife area to respond to the urgency of the hydroelectricity shortage.

“We are definitely in a time of considerable change to the environment.”

Jim Sparling, manager of climate change programs for Environment and Natural Resources, takes a broad view of that “considerable change.”

He does not share the concern expressed by Bromley and Dolynny, arguing there is evidence the NWT has endured longer and deeper droughts than the current one.

“We don’t know when the water comes back (but) there’s a lot of evidence that there was a significant flood-drought cycle more significant than this one in the past 50 years,” he said. “Using sediment cores in lakes or tree core samples we can see pretty significant fluctuations in past centuries and things have come back. It’s always a flood-drought cycle.”

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