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Program for remote communities in Canada

Wind turbines have reached a level of reliability which makes them attractive for installation in remote cold climates, where a single maintenance visit can run to thousands of dollars in helicopter hire charges.

A three year program for promotion of renewable energy in remote Canadian communities was launched last month from the platform of a conference in Montreal, "Renewable Energy Technologies in Cold Climates." Announcing the C$2.4 million program, Ralph Goodale, Minister of Natural Resources Canada, said that wind systems, along with small hydro, high-efficiency wood heating, and solar energy for ventilation air heating, were sufficiently reliable to meet some of the electricity and heating needs of remote communities -- with few or none of the greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change.

The "Renewable Energy for Remote Communities Program" is designed to remove some of the barriers to the wider use of renewables in far flung settlements. Canada has more than 300 such communities, which are defined as not being connected to the main electrical grid or natural gas networks. Many of them depend on oil or diesel fuel for electricity. The high cost of transporting these fuels results in energy costs up to ten times greater than those in urban centres.

The three-day cold climate conference, from May 4-6, attracted over 350 delegates from 20 countries. Goodale stressed the opportunities for economic expansion, job creation, technological advancement and export growth. "Renewable energy technologies also have a critical role to play in helping us to meet our international targets to reduce climate change," he said. The conference papers covered the full range of renewables in cold climates. Participants heard that solar, bioenergy, wind and small hydro systems must be designed to cope with temperatures as low as -40 degrees Celsius. The conference featured over 100 presentations by experts from government and industry, as well as a renewable energy trade show featuring 30 exhibitors. Differing interests were covered in parallel sessions. Delegates discussed global perspectives on market prospects, environmental issues, ramifications of utility restructuring and industrial potential, as well as incentives for and barriers to using renewable energy.

Several technical presentations emphasised the importance of matching the technology to the particular application. Reliability in remote cold locations is absolutely vital as single maintenance visits can cost up to C$10,000 in helicopter charges. Thus photovoltaics had obvious attractions, though wind too is able to realise significant fuel savings when linked with diesel plant in remote villages.

A 90 minute debate on the theme "Deployment incentives and constraints" was a highlight of the event, with panellists from Ontario Hydro and the World Bank as well as from the renewables industry. The panel generally agreed that prospects for the renewables in cold climates and remote regions were good, with the World Bank examining their potential in several regions. No one was sure how much renewables development would be stimulated by consumer-led green energy program, but the general view was one of scepticism.

The question of external costs was also discussed and there were doubts that government action would ensure these were correctly reflected in energy prices. With privatisation of the electricity utilities looming in Canada, questioners wanted to know whether this was good or bad news for the renewables. The panel felt it was likely to be two-edged. On the one hand, more developers would be likely to enter the market, on the other, the higher cost of capital might make capital-intensive renewables less competitive. Another of the drawbacks was that the electricity system as a whole might end up being less efficient. This remark generated considerable discussion.

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