Friday 22 September 2017

The Future of Renewable Energy in Indigenous and Remote Communities


The School of Environment and Sustainability, University of Saskatchewan, in conjunction with Saskatchewan Polytechnic, held a one-day public symposium on Renewable Energy in Remote and Indigenous Communities on September 5 in Saskatoon.

See Also: Renewable Energy Success Stories from Indigenous and Remote Communities in Alaska

A Circumpolar Perspective
The symposium’s second panel looked at technological advancements. It was composed of: Laura Sokka, Senior Scientist, VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland, University of Helsinki; Raman Mall, Senior Engineer, Supply Planning and Integration, SaskPower; and Michael Ross, Industrial Research Chair in Northern Energy Innovation, Yukon College. The information they provided has been supplemented by extracts from two online reports.

Bald eagle

Energy Requirements in Remote Communities
Many remote communities are off the grid and rely on diesel fuel. Renewable energy can support energy security, reliability, and self-reliance, but it faces a number of different challenges.

Renewable energy is variable and can’t be controlled (when the sun rises or if the wind will blow).

“One of the things that we are really looking at in Alaska is this idea of thermal storage. When we have more wind power than there is demand at any one time, you can store that in the form of heat, using distributed heating units in people's homes, or as hot water, which is more common. In Alaska, we use about two-thirds as much energy for heating as we do for electric power.” (Expanding Renewable Energy into Remote Communities is a Team Effort)

There are no economies of scale, a high capital cost, and logistical hurdles, such as getting a crane into a fly-in community.

Technology has not been designed to address small community needs (e.g. smaller or tilt-up turbines that don’t need cranes).

It’s important to test and verify that the technology works before sending it off into extreme conditions (although it was also noted that necessity was the mother of invention).

“We have installed a lot of equipment that hasn't worked particularly well in the Arctic. It is not just the temperature. A lot of it has to do with the fact that the air is denser when it is cold. The colder it gets, the heavier the air is. A turbine might fail in the Arctic when it would be fine in a more temperate environment operating at the same wind speed, because the air is more dense.” (Expanding Renewable Energy into Remote Communities is a Team Effort)

Labour is hard to come by for both installation and maintenance. Plug and play options, such as solar shingles and film, are more modular and don’t require as much expertise to install and maintain.

“Stakeholders noted that communities currently lack adequate opportunities to collaborate on an equal footing with public utilities and private developers, in terms of deploying, operating and maintaining these systems. They felt that a lack of knowledge and technical proficiency within the communities was a significant barrier to developing these more holistic collaboration models, compounded by a lack of training opportunities available to acquire the skills and knowledge needed within the community.” (Enabling a Clean Energy Future for Canada’s Remote Communities)

Diesel may be loud, smelly, and expensive, but it’s controllable and transportable. Replacements must be reliable.

Michael Ross pointed out that that no one size fits all. The circumpolar region is a wide, diverse territory and it’s important to talk to the community, understand their way of life, values, and needs before suggesting a solution. The discussion needs to stretch beyond power to cold-climate housing and food security. In addition, successful projects in remote communities require a community champion.

“it was also felt that in accordance with the IESO’s Aboriginal Community Energy Planning (ACEP) process, the current evaluation of community projects may not be holistic enough and does not adequately examine the interface with other local infrastructure, such as water purification plants or institutional facilities, to obtain system performance and economic efficiencies.” (Enabling a Clean Energy Future for Canada’s Remote Communities)

Consideration must be given to the motivation for going to renewables as remote communities generate a very small proportion of CO2 emissions. Incentives may include cost, efficiency, environmental, and social goals.

“Challenging fuel logistics and delivery of diesel in Canada’s most isolated populations can have serious environmental implications. Lengthy distances significantly increase the risk of spills and leakages, and once delivered there is still a risk of inadequate storage, with leaks causing in-situ contamination of soil and groundwater.” (Enabling a Clean Energy Future for Canada’s Remote Communities)

Renewable energy may not be the only option. If you can’t control the source, you may be able to control usage. Quebec publishes ads announcing peak times and asking people to reduce or delay usage.

Laura Sokka (research articles) explained that Finland has focused on wood energy and combined heat and power production in conjunction with pulp and paper mills. However, she noted the competing demands on Finland’s forests for pulp and paper, energy, and traditional uses such as reindeer herding in northern areas.