The Northwest Territories should scrap plans to expand its Taltson hydro facility, a new study of possible climate change responses in the territory argues.
The study, from northern social justice think-tank Alternatives North, states the territory should instead focus on carbon offsets, wood pellet heating, and renewable diesel.
The territorial government believes expanding Taltson, located around 60 km north of Fort Smith, is vital to the NWT economy as it would provide cleaner and cheaper power to residents and mines in the North Slave.
Costly power bills in the territory have long been a concern – residents and businesses pay some of the highest power rates in Canada. Mining advocates argue an expanded Taltson would help proposed new mines open, helping the economy, by allowing them to move away from diesel generation.
Alternatives North’s study, entitled Climate Emergency: Getting the NWT off Diesel, also wants a shift away from diesel – but says that can be achieved in other ways.
Stating a target of halving greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible, the study equates that to eliminating 225 million litres of diesel use per year. Over 20 years it compares the Taltson expansion’s impact with that of carbon offsets, renewable diesel, wood pellet boilers, and wind and solar power.
The study concludes the planned Taltson expansion and generating electricity from biomass are the most expensive ways of reducing emissions.
A plain-language summary of the report, which compares tackling climate change to putting out a house fire, says the expansion is like “buying a fancy truck to plow snow from your driveway onto the fire, because you really wanted that fancy truck.”
“Assuming that you agree that climate change is an emergency and it should be a top priority and that this Taltson hydro project was supposed to be a response to climate change, then it doesn’t make any sense,” said study co-author Andrew Robinson, former executive director of the Arctic Energy Alliance.
“We should put the money toward more effective measures.”
The feasibility study compared the outcomes and costs of a number of strategies to halve emissions over 20 years.
Expanding Taltson would take place in three phases: connecting the facility to the North Slave, then adding diamond mines, then reaching down to connect with the southern grid.
This has been projected to cost more than $1 billion and largely hinges on federal support. Last January, the territorial and federal governments invested $1.2 million to get the ball rolling.
Earlier this year, the territorial government said it was assessing alternatives to installing a cable under Great Slave Lake – which is a key part of the Taltson expansion plan.
GNWT stands behind Taltson expansion
Andrew Stewart, director of the territorial government’s energy division, said the current plan to expand Taltson involves a proven, cost-effective a source of renewable energy.
Stewart said the expansion has the potential to improve energy security for up to 70 percent of NWT residents. He added it will take advantage of an existing reservoir at Taltson that will need to be upgraded but will not introduce any new flooding.
Stewart noted that while the Taltson expansion will have significant up-front costs, this project alone is expected to reduce emissions by 44 percent of the NWT’s stated goal by 2030.
The project is expected by the NWT government to substantially reduce industrial pollution, which make up half of the territory’s overall emissions.
Finally, Stewart said, the territory will work with Indigenous communities and organizations to monitor and manage water and believes in the the territory’s “strong regulatory system” to review projects.
“We are confident that this project will receive a thorough review and the GNWT will comply with all conditions and requirements at every stage,” Stewart said by email.
Robinson, however, argues the high cost of the expansion – along with future maintenance costs – means Taltson may not actually provide power that’s cheaper than diesel for mines.
“You would have to subsidize the transmission line for its entire life to convince any mines to use the power,” he said. “That’s also assuming that there will be mines. Another mine has just gone semi-belly up and that was the one that was supposed to be the strongest.”
When it comes to the high cost of living in the North, Robinson said the study prioritized reducing emissions and that efforts to address climate change and the cost of living should be kept separate. He said increasing wages or the northern residents’ tax deduction would be better ways to target the latter.
“That would do a lot more to make life more affordable than mucking around with the power system,” he said.
The study posits carbon offsets would be the most immediate and affordable way of halving emissions, at an estimated cost of $15 million per year.
The authors recommend the territorial government begin buying carbon offsets in 2020 and continue doing so until other emission-reducing plans take effect.
Carbon offsets are funds that help reduce emissions produced in other countries where renewable energy is less costly, but people there cannot afford it. The summary compares carbon offsets to paying for a fire truck from another town to put out a house fire because the local fire truck is too slow and costs too much.
Andrew Robinson, in a submitted photo, is a former executive director of the Arctic Energy Alliance.
“It doesn’t matter where the project is as long as it happens,” Robinson said.
“It comes down to whether or not you believe that we need to do something about climate change.”
Wood pellet boilers
The study recommends the territorial and federal governments also invest in wood pellet boilers in NWT communities over the next five years, at an estimated price tag of $145 million. It says the NWT government should sell heat recovered from diesel generators and centralized biomass boilers at 80 percent of the price of fossil heating oil.
Robinson explained that community-scale wood pellet heating systems, using underground pipes between buildings, can reduce heating bills by 20 percent and generate a net income of $80 million over 20 years while also cutting emissions.
“The biggest source of emissions inside the communities is downtown [Yellowknife], like Franklin Avenue,” Robinson said. “Building after building is on heating oil there and you could switch those things out, easy.”
But he noted these heating systems might not be realistic for more remote communities, giving Paulatuk as an example.
The territory currently gets wood pellets from a plant east of High Level, Alberta, which are made of waste sawdust from lumber mills. Former Hay River mayor Brad Mapes plans to open a wood pellet plant in Enterprise.
Finally, the Alternatives North study says the NWT government could reduce more than half of emissions by replacing fossil diesel with renewable diesel. This is made from non-petroleum sources like natural fats, vegetable oils, and greases. The study compares this option to paying extra to bring in the local fire truck.
The study recommends the government immediately begin transitioning to renewable diesel within its own operations. Alternatives North says in five years’ time the government should purchase 200 million litres of renewable diesel and provide a subsidy so it’s the same price as fossil diesel, at an estimated cost of $65 million a year.
According to the study, California uses 200 million litres of renewable diesel per year and there are plans to start producing it in Alberta. Robinson added renewable diesel can be formulated for northern winter temperatures.
The study recommends the territorial government conduct its own investigation to examine the most cost-effective way of becoming carbon neutral within 15 years.
Covid-19 overshadows climate change
Robinson said plans to meet with territorial ministers to discuss climate change as an emergency were put on hold due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
“They couldn’t meet with us because they were too busy with an emergency, a different emergency,” he said. “It’s kind-of clear that they are not treating climate change as the main priority right now either, which… fair enough.”
Robinson said, however, he has been encouraged by the government’s response to the pandemic.
“It’s pretty hopeful when a government does take something seriously. You’re like: whoa, yeah, we can do this.”