The Taltson hydro system's Twin Gorges facility is seen in a photo included in a 2007 regulatory submission.
Canada’s 2023-24 budget pledges to connect the country’s grid “from coast to coast to coast,” a statement that appears to increase the likelihood that major NWT projects will be funded.
The Northwest Territories has for years championed an expansion of its Taltson hydro plant to serve the North Slave – and a region that’s home to several diamond mines – with cleaner, cheaper energy.
Ultimately, the GNWT even envisages connecting Taltson to southern provinces, completing a grid that would transform the reliability of electricity provision across much of the NWT and possibly bring down prices.
But even the first phase of such a project would cost well over $1 billion, money the territory does not have.
Until now, finding significant funding for the Taltson expansion has been hard. The NWT government has so far spent only $11.5 million on “pre-feasibility work” – $6.2 million of that with northern businesses.
But finance minister Chrystia Freeland’s Tuesday budget appears to open the door for significant federal investment in projects like Taltson’s expansion.
Taltson is mentioned by name in the budget as an example of a project that will benefit if the budget passes in its current form. (The budget requires approval from MPs before any of it takes effect.)
“We will expand Canada’s electricity grid, connect it from coast to coast to coast, and ensure that Canadians and Canadian businesses have access to cleaner and cheaper energy into the next century,” the main budget document states.
Of particular note for the NWT, the budget states that the Canada Infrastructure Bank – which pairs public investment with private finance on major projects – will invest at least $20 billion “to support the building of major clean electricity and clean growth infrastructure projects.”
Last month, federal infrastructure minister Dominic LeBlanc said the Canada Infrastructure Bank was “the most obvious and immediate partner” for the NWT government on the Taltson project. LeBlanc said the bank’s board was expected to make a decision on Taltson in the near future.
The 2023-24 budget also proposes a 15-percent refundable tax credit for clean-energy investments – including “equipment for the transmission of electricity between provinces and territories.”
The budget then promises that Ottawa will “consult on the best means, whether through the tax system or in other ways, of supporting and accelerating investments in projects that could be considered critical to meeting the 2035 net-zero objective.”
Transmission line study beginning
Enthusiasm for the Taltson project remains high inside the legislature.
Addressing colleagues on Tuesday, Thebacha MLA Frieda Martselos stressed the importance of the Taltson expansion to nearby communities like Fort Smith, which she represents, but warned that the Salt River First Nation’s decision to withdraw from a memorandum of understanding related to Taltson could cause “roadblocks.”
Martselos urged the NWT government to work with the First Nation to get it back on board, given Salt River has reserve lands “right beside the Taltson dam.”
Infrastructure minister Diane Archie said a seat was being “kept at the table” for the Salt River First Nation, while agreeing that Taltson’s expansion is “one of the most important green-energy projects here in the NWT … key to both our ability to reduce emissions and support resource development.”
That view isn’t shared by everyone. Critics of the project say the power-hungry mines imagined by proponents simply won’t exist, and the money needed to fund the expansion would be far better spent elsewhere.
But the territory has been pressing ahead with preparatory work in the background.
A recently issued request for proposals seeks a contractor to study whether the transmission line connecting Taltson to the North Slave should either cross Great Slave Lake or follow the highway to the west.
Crossing the lake would involve a 160-km submarine cable plus another 160 km of cable above ground, the territorial government believes. Following the highway requires around 810 km of cable.
The territory’s request for proposals states that it hopes work to assess the two options will be complete by September.