The North faces enormous developmental challenges. In the last fifty years, many northern communities abandoned their previously nomadic and historically sustainable lifestyles to embrace life in settled communities. They have also developed a complete dependence on imported diesel fuel. JOSHUA PEARCE says that now threatens the sustainability of these communities socially, environmentally and economically. This article originally appeared in The Circle 03.15.
Diesel creates substantial air pollution which has been linked to health impacts such as high rates of asthma due to poorer air quality. Diesel combustion also releases greenhouses gases contributing to the negative effects of climate change plaguing the North. There are also a number of economic issues associated with diesel use. The Government of Nunavut, for example, estimates it spends about one fifth of its annual budget on energy each year, thereby limiting the resources available for other community problems such as underfunded education programs, inadequate health services and overcrowded substandard housing. Meanwhile, the price of diesel is both volatile and expected to rise in the long term, further hamstringing northern communities. Yet little has been done to integrate renewable energy technologies (RET) to replace the use of diesel fuel in the Arctic. While a handful of renewable energy pilot projects were started in the 1980s, they provide little electricity.
However, there is a solution. Three studies explored various facets of RETs in Nunavut to assess their technical viability in isolated Northern communities, gauge the perspectives of local people on renewable energy use, and analyze government policy-makers’ perspectives on integrating RETs into the North.
In case studies, technical analysis found that wind and solar photovoltaic technology were technically viable. In all cases, by matching peak power of existing systems, the RET systems could reduce diesel dependence substantially and in some cases, with modest storage, replace 100 per cent of the diesel-generated electricity in a community. In addition, it is clear that existing costs of RET systems would be economical on a life cycle basis because of extraordinarily high costs of energy in the North.
The two interview studies uncovered challenges, including capacity gaps, awareness gaps regarding the potential environmental and economic benefit of RET for a community as well as bureaucratic barriers and cost-related barriers.
Bureaucracies waste resources and slow progress. In addition, the high up-front capital cost of RET is worsened by the general lack of investment capital and lack of economies of scale due to the remote nature and small populations in Northern communities.
The awareness gap for RETs can be addressed with large-scale community consultations on renewable energy. These can open discussion on the current energy situation in the north, expose community members to RETs and provide residents with an opportunity to have questions answered by RET specialists. Renewable energy can also be integrated into school curricula to bring information from children to their parents. By exposing students to RETs, children obtain strong lessons in applied science and learn the benefits of renewable energy, the need to be energy efficient and become more aware of the impact of diesel energy on health and the environment.
Once a foundation exists within the region regarding the viability of renewable energy and community awareness of the technologies, it will be essential for the various levels of government to explore opportunities to build partnerships with businesses and non-profit organizations to support northern RET research, provide appropriate incentives and to develop a structure to support renewable energy related jobs and RET deployment.
It is inevitable that the north will face a number of sustainable development challenges in the coming decades. However, if addressed properly, shifting to a sustainable energy plan won’t be one of them. Given the strong renewable resources in the North, alternative energy sources such as solar power hold substantial technical and economic promise for communities that wish to reduce their diesel dependence.
JOSHUA PEARCE holds a PhD in Materials Engineering. His research concentrates on the use of open source appropriate technology to find collaborative solutions to sustainability and poverty reduction.