At the turn of the 20th century, as the Klondike’s easy gold was running out, ingenious engineers mechanized the sifting and sluicing of ever-larger volumes of pay-dirt required to find gold. After nearly a decade of dreaming and scheming, in 1907 the Yukon’s first hydro plant was built—using steam shovels and literal horse-power—to power these machines. Soon a series of turbines were powering the behemoth dredges that churned up the beds of the Klondike River and adjoining creeks for gold. That’s how hydro-power generation came to the North and it’s been in use ever since, with much of what remains in place a legacy of the mining industry.
Today, the Yukon generates close to all of its electricity via hydro, the NWT more than two-thirds. And that’s a good thing: hydro plants barely emit any greenhouse gases, they generally provide a consistent level of power and, once constructed, they pump out the wattage at a very low cost. But there’s a reason why hydro isn’t the exclusive provider of electricity across the North—and why Nunavut is almost entirely diesel dependant.
Water, water everywhere
The potential is here. In assessing possible hydro sites to meet its expected power needs for 2065, the Yukon found 171 potential sites and whittled it down to six frontrunners. Each are capable of at least a 53-megawatt output—and one possibly up to 300 mW. (Yukon’s power draw on a summer day is roughly 40mW; the record on a bitterly cold January 2015 day was 83.69 mW.)
A recent NWT hydro report noted the territory has the capacity for 11,000 mW. But how much does it currently have installed? Just 55.7 mW. And it’s not even using all of that. The Taltson hydro plant in the South Slave region has an 18 mW-capacity but Hay River, Fort Smith and the other communities it serves only consume about half that. So that means every day, water spills over the dam and down the river system and power slips through the fingers of a jurisdiction with some of the most expensive power bills in North America. But it’s harder to make a case to expand the system than it might seem—connecting the nearest communities (Fort Providence and Kakisa) would only add about one-mW of consumption from 850 people, at a cost of as much as $40 million to build transmission lines.
Therein lies the main problem with developing large hydro projects: the small customer base in the North. Hydro plants generate kilowatt-hours far cheaper than diesel plants once in operation because they require little maintenance and no fuel. But the upfront costs of building hydro projects is higher—often much higher. And with relatively few customers to spread those tens—or hundreds—of millions of dollars in initial construction costs around to, it just doesn’t make sense to build without a commitment from a mine or the federal government.
This very problem has held up a much-discussed hydro project outside Iqaluit, along with other smaller plants across Nunavut. “If you were part of an energy grid, you’d have the ability to absorb that over your entire grid, but where each of our communities are isolated, we have less ability,” said former Qulliq Energy Corporation CEO Alain Barriault.
To get around this problem, each territory has considered linking to southern grids; some as sellers, others as buyers.
As part of its new hydro review, the Yukon looked at connecting to B.C. (A previous assessment had examined linking up to Alaska.) Both business cases back negative—the projects would cost between $1.3- and $1.7-billion and the price tag outweighed the benefits. “Essentially the (transmission) lines can be thought of as long skinny straws that cannot move a lot of electricity,” a summary of the report notes.
The NWT has, at least for now, abandoned the idea of expanding Taltson to 56 mW and building hundreds of miles of lines east of Great Slave Lake to connect to the territory’s diamond mines. But talk has started back up again about connecting to Uranium City, Saskatchewan, 200 kilometres away.
As for Nunavut, the Kivalliq (directly north of Manitoba along the Hudson Bay coast) is working with its southern neighbour to potentially import electricity from the province. Both jurisdictions are pursuing federal funding for a feasibility study of the estimated $904-million endeavour to build lines and substations from Churchill to the Kivalliq, which a recent report argued would save five Nunavut communities a combined $40 million per year in diesel offsets—and future mines even more.
Water leaves a footprint
Iqalungmiut and Kimmirummiut have raised concerns about the proposed Iqaluit dam site due to potential impacts on hunting and fishing. And more than 50 years after it was built, former residents of Rocher River, NWT are still fighting for compensation after the Taltson dam construction proved the final nail in the community’s coffin. Taltson was built to power the nearby Pine Point mine back in 1965, but the dam flooded traplines and altered the flow of the river system.
And it’s not just water disruption. Fish can make their way through the penstock—the tunnel of water leading to the turbine—and suffer injuries or be killed by the turbine. And at Taltson, when the plant went down for routine maintenance in 2014, fish were stranded in pools and biologists estimated that roughly 62,000 mostly juvenile fish might have died as a result.
There are run-of-river hydro systems— micro-hydro—that can power households, businesses or even small communities. (Though, in winter, water levels are naturally lower—a problem because that’s when the power draw is highest.) The GNWT is investigating such technology to power Délı̨nę (with a 1.2 mW offshoot from the Great Bear River) and L/ utselk’e (with a 500 kW plant on the Snow Drift River) to curb diesel reliance in both remote communities.
But beware: Territorial politicians and bureaucrats love their big, shiny mega-projects. Recently retired NWT MLA Bob Bromley put it succinctly: “In Délı̨nę , the run-of-river project was transformed into 100 megawatt-power for the pipeline project which went nowhere. In L/ utselk’e and Fort Smith, we have Taltson hydro for the diamond mines. After investing tens of millions, the project was cancelled… Rather than face realities, they come up with a low-ball price and then proceed to spend millions of dollars on studies. A few years later, they quietly announce that the project has been shelved because it costs too much.” Maybe it pays to think small.