The unprecedented and dramatic shrinkage of Arctic sea ice this past summer stunned scientists and sent alarm bells ringing about the effect of climate change on Canada's northern regions. But for people who live there, those impacts have been obvious for some time. "Our Arctic coast villages are on the front lines of climate change and seeing the effects on a daily basis," says Wade Carpenter, an alternative energy specialist with the government of the Northwest Territories (NWT). He points to the example of what the locals call "drunken trees," forests that used to stand upright but now lean every which way because their shallow roots are unable to stay anchored as the permafrost melts.
"These are things that people see and that are happening very quickly, and that the elders are noticing. Even if we didn't have a bunch of scientists telling us things, the elders would be able to tell you that something is weird here," says Carpenter.
Their concerns are helping drive a renewed effort to use wind to help power remote communities that currently rely on expensive and polluting diesel plants to supply their electricity. Even though the overall contribution of the sparsely populated Northwest Territories to Canada's carbon emissions is very low, Carpenter believes its vulnerability to the impacts of climate change make it important that the region take action. "It is almost an integrity thing, in my opinion. We have to be seen to be doing something."
broken or dismantled
The territorial government released a greenhouse gas reduction strategy last year calling for the installation of a pilot power plant project by 2009 combining wind energy and diesel-fired generation. It is not the first time that wind-diesel generation has been tried in the territory. In the 1980s and 1990s, turbines were installed in a handful of communities across the NWT. All have since fallen down, broken down or been dismantled.
But Carpenter says a lot has changed in the intervening years. A successful wind-diesel program in Alaska, which now has nine projects with a total capacity of 1.59 MW, has help advance the technology significantly. "That doesn't mean all of the technical problems have been overcome, but we know way more now than we did even ten years ago about how these machines operate in cold climates," says Carpenter.
Community support is also much stronger than it was back then, he continues, particularly from Inuvialuit leaders. "The idea of using wind does fit in with their traditional values as a people."
NWT wants to pursue what Carpenter calls a "hub and spoke" model for wind development. The concept, pioneered in Alaska, would see a larger community with more infrastructure and skilled workers install the first wind turbines. Once that concept was up and running, further wind turbines would be set up in smaller surrounding communities.
"Any time you do something like this in the north, you want to have safety nets established. Instead of putting one or two turbines out in very remote communities as previously happened -- and then not be able to get anybody in there for maintenance when they go down -- you establish one hub or one base where people can be trained and you can work with several machines at once to understand them better and see how they perform," explains Carpenter. "After that pilot is well established you can take all the lessons learned and the skills and you can go to a community one hundred kilometres away."
Tuktoyaktuk, a hamlet of about 870 people 350 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle in the Beaufort Delta, wants to become NWT's first wind power hub. Jim Stevens, a local councillor, says the coastal community has been at the forefront of oil and gas exploration in the region since the 1970s and that industrial legacy gives it the resources needed to succeed.
"In some reports we've read about early failures in wind energy, it was not actually the amount of wind that was available that was looked at as one of the major factors. It was things like having community champions, political will, infrastructure and human resources. As a result of having industry here for so long, now we have some of that stuff."
Tuktoyaktuk also has a desire to reduce the community's reliance on diesel fuel, which costs twice what it did back when the NWT government first tried to utilise wind energy. That cost translates into some outrageously expensive power. According to a March 2007 government fact sheet, residential electricity rates in Tuktoyaktuk were C$0.7243/kWh, with prices in other diesel-dependent communities ranging from C$0.4053/kWh to C$2.6673/kWh. Fuel spills, leaking storage tanks and polluting air emissions are also concerns.
Building a wind project, however, is not something the community can do on its own. "I think one of the things we really have problems with is we need to get somebody to step up. The federal government, the territorial government, somebody with some funding," says Stevens.
The Canadian Wind Energy Association has proposed a federal Remote Community Wind Incentive Program that would provide both capital grants and production incentives to projects. The total cost of the program is expected to be about C$74 million over 18 years, enough to help fund 34 wind projects with a total capacity of 87.4 MW. The idea, says Carpenter, has widespread support across the north. "I think the time is right for it."
Stevens says Tuktoyaktuk is also lobbying the federal Department of Indian and Northern Affairs to provide financial support for its plans. "I think there is sometimes a bit of hesitancy to fund projects of this sort, but in reality, developments in hydro, developments in nuclear, developments in oil and gas have all had federal support in some form or another," says Stevens. "So there is federal support going to other less green, less renewable, less sustainable types of energy, and there's no good reason it shouldn't be coming to wind as well."