Arctic not viable says utility -- Cost and reliability

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Escalating fuel prices are making wind energy more attractive than ever in Canada's Nunavut territory, but the problems associated with operating turbines in an isolated Arctic environment still outweigh the benefits., claims Nunavut Power. The government utility, serving 10,500 customers in Canada's easternmost northern territory, has released a report concluding that wind is still not a viable source of electricity generation in the far north.

The utility's predecessor, the Northwest Territories Power Corporation, began buying wind power in 1994 from a privately owned 80 kW turbine at Cambridge Bay. In 1996, the utility launched its own wind development program and since then has installed two 80 kW turbines a Kugluktuk and a 66 kW machine at Rankin Inlet.

The utility's interest in wind was prompted by a desire to find a less expensive alternative to costly diesel generation, which supplies most of Nunavut's electricity. So far, wind has not provided the answer. "The economics of wind energy need to dramatically improve for it to become a viable source of power in the long term for all Nunavut customers," the report says. The gap, however, is beginning to close. Until recently, Nunavut Power bought electricity from the Cambridge Bay turbine at a loss. Now the C$0.20/kWh contract price is better than the utility's avoided cost of diesel, says the report, and "this situation now exists in several locations with high wind potential."

Unreliable operation

Fuel costs, however, are only part of the equation. The harsh climate takes its toll on the turbines and has helped contribute to extended periods of downtime. "The units do not operate reliably in cold weather so they require regular maintenance and parts to ensure continued operation," says the report. Maintenance support from the south is too expensive and slow. "Because of these factors, some of the best wind resources are marginal overall."

While small by industry standards, the utility's wind installations still represent a large percentage of the generation for small communities. Better integration of the turbines with the diesel units is essential if wind power is to be attractive. In Kugluktuk, the two wind turbines could supply up to 60% of the community's power at any given time. But as the wind fluctuates, the report says, power quality and reliability can fluctuate along with it. Fluctuating loads also cause the diesel engines to run less efficiently. "For wind energy to be successful in the long term, it will require better control systems to ensure that they integrate efficiently with the diesel power plant."

Despite the challenges, however, Nunavut Power has not given up on wind. For now it plans to monitor its wind plant and develop solutions to the problems it has encountered. "Once these units have operated for another 12-24 months and there is better information on the on-going costs and reliability, the need for additional projects will be reviewed," says the utility.

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