Demand outweighs cold climate challenges

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An Arctic utility is asking the wind industry to respond to customer demand for wind power to replace diesel systems. But while it will buy the output of any wind projects at avoided diesel-fuel costs, it declines to stump up more cash, believing that massive government investment in wind-generated hydrogen is the more feasible solution

Nunavut Power Corporation is looking for power producers interested in developing wind projects in an Arctic environment that so far has not proven very hospitable to the technology. The government-owned utility, which serves about 11,000 customers in Canada's easternmost northern territory, issued a request for proposals (RFP) to 33 potential bidders at the end of January. Submissions were due at the end of March.

"Nunavut Power is not putting up any cash," says Robert Patrick, the utility's director of engineering. "We are just saying that if they want to go ahead and put up some wind power, we'll buy kilowatt hours from them."

The impetus for the RFP came from the utility's customers, who live in 25 communities scattered across two million square kilometres of land extending north and west of Hudson's Bay. Many, says Patrick, see wind as an alternative to the 85 diesel generators that currently supply the territory's electricity and burn more than 35 million litres of fuel a year. "There was quite a bit of pressure that came from the customers and from the communities to the government, " says Patrick.

Wind power is not new to Nunavut, although it has had limited success in an environment where severe cold and high winds, which can gust to nearly 56 m/s, take their toll on the turbines and maintenance support from the south is expensive and slow. In 1994, the utility's predecessor, the Northwest Territories Power Corporation, began buying wind power from a privately owned 80 kW turbine at Cambridge Bay. Two years later it launched its own wind development program, installing two 80 kW turbines at Kugluktuk and a 66 kW unit at Rankin Inlet.

Only the Rankin Inlet machine remains operable, says Patrick, but even it has not proven to be particularly cost-effective. "We calculated the simple payback on the investment was 55 years."

Despite the demand for wind power that is now coming from the communities its serves, he says, the utility is reluctant to invest any more in its own projects. But with improvements that have been made in turbine technology in recent years, Patrick believes some developers can come up with systems that will work. "Whether they can do it economically will remain to be seen. We're going to allow the private sector to weave its magic and see how it fares," he says. "We do know from Rankin Inlet that if you have a will, then the turbines will run and they can be modified to be successful in our climate."

Nunavut Power does not want to pay more than its avoided cost of diesel for wind, says Patrick, although if bids come in slightly above that ceiling, "We'd have to go and talk to the government." Right now, electricity cost ranges from C$0.32/kWh in Iqaluit, the territory's capital, up to about C$0.90/kWh in more remote communities.

The utility has not put any restrictions on project size or the quantity of power it will buy, giving developers the flexibility to design systems that take advantage of economies of scale. "We're a little nervous about seeing very high penetration systems because they have hurt us before, but we're leaving it open. We're going to review any control systems they come up with to try to head off any problems."

The wind-diesel dilemma

In Arctic communities, Patrick says, even small wind installations can represent a large percentage of generation. In Kugluktuk, the two 80 kW turbines could supply up to 60% of the community's power at any given time. "If the wind dies down or drops, diesels have a great deal of difficulty picking up that load in a hurry. Sometimes, and this happened to us in Kugluktuk, the generators can't pick it up fast enough and the whole place trips out."

Although escalating fuel prices and the threat of climate change and polluting diesel emissions to Canada's sensitive polar ecosystem are growing concerns in the north, Patrick believes it is too early to say whether adding wind to its diesel grids is the answer. "I think, personally, that it is a baby step. It's not a bad idea, but I don't see this particular endeavour going an awfully long way to getting us off the well," he says. "To me, the mother lode for wind up here is to drastically over-provision the wind and use it to generate hydrogen from water." Nunavut Power, he says, is putting together a proposal for federal funding to experiment with the concept.

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