Whitehorse, capital of Canada's Yukon Territory, was a fitting location for the Cold Climate Opportunities international wind power conference, held May 26-28. With a decade of experience operating two grid-connected wind turbines on Haeckel Hill -- some 800 metres above the city where temperatures can drop to -45 centigrade in winter and rime icing is severe -- the dedicated individuals involved in the Whitehorse wind project have shown what can be achieved when commercial, utility and government sectors work together with persistence and vision. This need to combine forces, share experiences and create a larger voice for medium-sized wind in small, isolated community applications was a strong message during the conference, which was attended by a fairly even mix of government, commercial, utility and research representatives, mainly from Canada, but also from as far distant as Antarctica.
The presentations made it clear that a lot of work has been and is being done on researching the wind resource and keeping wind monitoring instruments and turbines running in extreme cold temperatures and under conditions of severe icing. The use of high strength materials, low viscosity oils and lubricants, blade heating systems, passive solar black-painted blades and heated ultrasonic wind instruments are some of the achievements reported. Delegates also heard, however, that not all cold temperature improvements are available for the few medium-sized turbines in the 35-200 kW range currently manufactured. The mainstream wind industry, in pursuit of economies of scale, has left the medium-sized turbine market behind.
Working in remote, isolated communities that are often lacking in infrastructure also poses special challenges. But Peter Magill of the Australian Antarctic Polar Laboratory showed what is possible when the political will and financial backing are in place. The laboratory has installed two Enercon E30 turbines at its Mawson base, with a third to go up early next year, and plans similar projects at two other bases. Environmental regulations in Antarctica are strict and any oil spill over 25 litres has to be reported, he told delegates. Before wind, each of the three Australian continental Antarctic bases used about 700,000 litres of diesel a year. This fuel is shipped from Australia and, "basically, a spill is a big embarrassment factor." Fuel savings from the high penetration wind-diesel under construction at these bases are expected to reach 75% when all the turbines are up and running, which translates into less frequent re-supply and a reduced risk of embarrassing spills.
The umbrella of government funding and a high investment in training makes the Australian Antarctic project possible. Small, remote and isolated communities in northern Canada find themselves in a very different situation. Economies of scale are virtually non-existent and the cost of living extremely high. The federal government's wind power production incentive is available for projects as small as 20 kW in remote areas, but as Axel Have, vice president of Nunavut Power Corporation (NPC), told delegates, "one cent per kWh won't cut it in the Arctic." NPC is prepared to buy electricity generated from wind projects at diesel replacement cost, he added, but the smaller utilities cannot do it on their own. "We need territorial and federal subsidies that make sense in the Arctic," he said. "I was a sceptic once, but I'm not any more. I will start lobbying for more financial help."
At present, only a handful of wind-diesel systems operate in northern North America and some of the lessons have been learned the hard way. The four turbine failures reported by Nunavut Power and the Northwest Territories Power Corporation were, in part, the result of immature technology and inadequate research and support. But northern communities are not discouraged. They know where their energy is coming from and they know that the cost is not only in dollars. In Nunavut's capital, Iqaluit, aboriginal elders will not hunt any animals right around the community because of the pollution from diesel, Have told delegates. Joe Linklater, chief of the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation, said the Yukon community of Old Crow is very interested in wind and expressed frustration that "we often hear all the reasons why we can't do it rather than the reasons why we can." Currently reliant on diesel, the Vuntut Gwitchin want the credibility that using wind energy would give them when they go to the US to fight for protection of the calving grounds of the Porcupine caribou herd against international oil interests.
It is clear there is still a lot of work ahead. Manufacturers need to listen to and work with researchers and developers. Developers, whether commercial, government or utility, need to involve communities and train local people. And everyone with an interest in the medium-sized wind industry needs to form a coalition to lobby for a level of funding that makes sense in the frozen north.