One of the NWT’s highest-priority infrastructure projects, valued at a billion dollars or more, is likely to receive enough federal cash in the next year for construction to begin.
Dominic LeBlanc, the federal infrastructure minister, on Wednesday told Cabin Radio he now sees a “very clear path” to funding the Taltson hydro expansion, a project the territory has championed since 2004.
Successive NWT governments have said expanding the South Slave’s Taltson hydro system across Great Slave Lake would bring cheaper, cleaner power to the North Slave – and help to make current and future North Slave mines more economical, while reducing emissions.
Without the Taltson hydro expansion, the current territorial government argues, reaching the NWT’s 2030 emissions reduction target will be impossible. However, the territory has nothing like the cash available to fund the project alone. (The territorial government’s annual budget for all of its operations is roughly $2 billion.)
Until now, the only spending on the expansion has involved small sums for planning work. There has been no sign of the many hundreds of millions of dollars required to complete construction.
In 2019, as northern affairs minister, LeBlanc told the Northwest Territories he hoped to secure the money for work to begin within three years.
Three years later, he told Cabin Radio: “We’re very close, I’m hoping, to my 2019 commitment. It may slide by a few months, but I’m not going to be back here in three years telling you that we’re still working on it. I think we’re getting very close.”
Among other topics, LeBlanc discussed the Taltson hydro expansion with Premier Caroline Cochrane and NWT MP Michael McLeod on Wednesday morning.
“Even this morning, we were looking at a map of potential significant mining developments that would be able to become customers of the hydro electricity generated,” LeBlanc said, adding he expects to find funding through Natural Resources Canada and his own department’s Canada Infrastructure Bank.
In the week that power rates rose by 2.5 percent for many NWT residents, LeBlanc said the project would be funded “in a way that doesn’t load a completely unreasonable cost down onto ratepayers.”
The current plan
The Taltson hydro system, north of Fort Smith, currently powers only the South Slave.
Expanding the system to the North Slave, as envisioned by the territorial government, would involve three huge phases.
The first involves adding 60 megawatts of generation capacity to the existing 18-megawatt plant at Taltson’s Twin Gorges power station, then stretching a transmission line across or around Great Slave Lake.
“It’ll provide the foundational green hydro system necessary to stabilize the cost of energy in the 10 communities around Great Slave Lake,” NWT Department of Infrastructure assistant deputy minister Robert Jenkins said in December last year.
Phase two would connect the new grid to the diamond mines. The final phase would connect that grid to the rest of Canada through Alberta or Saskatchewan.
Only phase one and possibly phase two are likely to receive federal cash in the near future. The NWT government says the last phase is likely to happen in the 2040s at the earliest.
While the territorial government has long wanted the expansion to move forward, critics say the project requires spending a huge sum of money on an uncertain outcome.
Social justice think-tank Alternatives North, for example, argues there may not be any new – or even existing – mines to use the cheaper, greener energy by the time Taltson is actually connected to the North Slave.
In a 2020 report that compared climate change to a house fire, Alternatives North said the Taltson expansion was like “buying a fancy truck to plow snow from your driveway onto the fire, because you really wanted that fancy truck.”
“We should put the money toward more effective measures,” said study co-author Andrew Robinson at the time.
The GNWT, though, says expanding Taltson would harness a proven, cost-effective source of renewable energy to achieve 44 percent of the territory’s emissions reduction goal.
Mining industry representatives have said the expansion, or a project like it, is necessary.
In 2019, mining consultant David Connelly told Yellowknife city councillors: “Without the infrastructure to bring cleaner, greener power to the North in large and reliable quantities, it’s going to be very difficult to attract investment into the mining side again in future.”