By George Thorpe
Water and wastewater treatment plants, along with other community utilities, require a steady and reliable power source to provide resilience. Diesel power generation and heating has been the standard in remote and northern communities for many years. Most are off the main electrical power grid, which means that diesel fuel must be freighted to each community at substantial expense by truck, ship or even aircraft.
This form of electrical generation is fairly inefficient, and produces significant greenhouse gases. There is the noisy rumble of generators running continually and it is well known that the burning of diesel produces harmful formaldehyde, sulphur dioxide, mercury and black soot. Also, there are supply, environmental and reliability issues.
Last year, a diesel barge failed to deliver fuel to Paulatuk in the Northwest Territories because of early ice. This meant that more than half a million litres of diesel had to be flown into the community to keep the generators producing power. The bill was close to $2 million. Air freight of fuel is common for some communities.
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Diesel fuel spills happen from time to time and in the past were often unreported. It is estimated that more than 10 million liters of diesel has been spilled north of 55 degrees latitude. These incidents are costly, both environmentally and economically.
Several years ago in April, the diesel generator in Pangnirtung caught on fire. Hospital patients were evacuated to Iqaluit and residents moved to central locations to keep warm. It is estimated that close to half of the diesel generators in the north are past their useful life and are becoming unreliable.
The move to renewables
Once a geothermal, biofuel, wind or solar power system with battery backup is installed, very little shipping of goods to site is required.
Chris Henderson is Executive Director of the non-profit Indigenous Clean Energy (ICE) Social Enterprise and has started the 20-20 Catalysts Program, which assists Canadian First Nation communities wanting to replace diesel. He says that Canada is on the cusp of a northern energy revolution. New investment is being committed to cleaner energy technologies in remote communities countrywide. However, he states the main problem well.
“The different cost curves of diesel and clean energy stack the cards against change for many small and cash-strapped communities, even if it could mean savings in the long run. Diesel generation requires only a modest up-front outlay of capital. However, 85% of the cost is in ongoing fuel purchases. Clean energy projects like small hydro, by contrast, require big capital expenditures upfront. But, positive economic returns over the longer term, such as net revenue for decades ahead, often do not influence the short-term decision.”
There are still economic, regulatory and operational challenges with renewable energy systems, For example, the supply and demand of power needs to be balanced 24/7. Battery storage and other new technologies can assist in this task. A remote monitoring and trending system also aids in troubleshooting and operator training.
Many remote communities have started on the journey to replace sooty diesel with alternative energy, but help is needed along the way. Useful resources include The Clean Energy for Rural and Remote Communities program, which supports a suite of diverse projects across Canada to reduce the reliance of rural and remote communities on diesel fuel for heat and power. Another is the Atlas of Canada. Remote Communities Energy Database website.
George Thorpe, P.Eng., E.P., is with BI Pure Water Canada Inc. This article appears in ES&E Magazine’s February 2020 issue.