The third wheel debate

A $5-million investment towards climate change could go a long way in a territory with 32,000 people. But the Yukon Party government has decided to…

A $5-million investment towards climate change could go a long way in a territory with 32,000 people.

But the Yukon Party government has decided to sink its entire share of Ottawa’s ecoTrust money into one project — a third turbine wheel at the Aishihik Lake hydroelectric station.

While the government argues the turbine will reduce our reliance on diesel generators during peak electricity periods and cut yearly greenhouse gas emissions significantly, critics charge it won’t help for years.

“This is not going to make one iota of difference in greenhouse gasses in 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011,” said Liberal leader Arthur Mitchell.

“It’s not going to be built for a couple of years. And if it was in place today it wouldn’t be making much difference because we already have excess capacity that we’re spilling over the dam most of the time.”

There’s no debate about the excess electricity.

The Yukon needs to sell its large power surplus that’s currently flowing over its dams to mines and industry, Yukon Energy Corporation officials have said in previous interviews.

Every month the corporation doesn’t sell the extra power the Yukon loses $250,000 — or $3 million annually — in potential profits, said officials.

The argument was made to justify the $20 million Carmacks-to-Pelly-Crossing grid extension and $4 million spur line to the Minto copper mine, which is expected to enter production next month.

But that seems to run counter to the government’s decision to sink $5 million to build more electricity for the future.

How can we have too much electricity and lost profits on one hand, and not enough electricity on the other?

Enter the third wheel debate.

“Well, it’s not surplus energy as much as it is increasing hydro capacity,” said Environment Minister Dennis Fentie in a recent interview about the third turbine.

“You have to take it in the full context of peak demand. We’re also installing electric heat everywhere in Whitehorse, so we know demand’s going to increase. You have to think ahead.”

The Yukon Energy Corp. and the Yukon Utilities Board have both been thinking ahead about electricity needs in the future.

The Energy Corp. has proposed building the third turbine since 1992.

But in a 2006 review of YEC’s 20-year-plan — which maps out expected electricity demands and the company’s intends to meet them — the Yukon Utilities Board quashed the turbine.

It isn’t needed until 2013, said the board.

The board also determined the turbine isn’t about increasing capacity but is rather “driven strictly by economic reasons, namely to offset future diesel generation that is expected to increase under the base-case load forecast.”

Using YEC’s forecast for base electricity loads, the Utilities Board determined the optimal timing of the turbine would be 2013.

Increased demand would make that optimal date come earlier; less need would push it further to the future.

To minimize uncertainty around timing of the third turbine, the final decision to build it should be made when economic reasons indicate it’s needed, said the YUB report.

“Therefore, the board recommends that this project not proceed until that time unless YEC can justify an earlier in-service date,” it reads.

As critics have noted, however, there were no consultations held on the third turbine.

And the money used to pay for it was earmarked to help combat greenhouse-gas emissions.

Asked about the YUB’s comments on the turbine, Fentie refused to budge.

“Well, it makes more sense to us, because it allows the efficiency factor to be increased at Aishihik with a smaller wheel,” he said.

“It’s all relative.”

Others suggest the Yukon Party could think of no other suitable way to spend the $5 million federal grant.

“It was easy — he took $5 million and said, ‘We’ll throw it at this and eventually it will be helpful’ — which, eventually it will be — ‘and I don’t have to do the hard work now,’” said Mitchell.

“This isn’t needed now, but there are some things that could have been done immediately,” he said.

“They could have taken the money and entered into a discussion with the city about having a trial program to increase the frequency of the busing service … or even considering a free service.

“That would take people out of cars and have an immediate effect on greenhouse gasses.”

Helping Yukoners upgrade the insulation in their homes is another area where impacts would be right now rather than in the future, he said.

Mitchell has challenged Fentie about the contradictions during question period.

“He cannot come up with anything to defend his position,” he said.

Fentie thinks otherwise, though.

The third turbine decision was made because the government is already spending money on other climate-change projects.

“There could have been options in transit, but we’re already invested in it,” he said.

“We’ve already invested, for Whitehorse, significant monies in the preceding 12 months to address public transit here and increase its capacity.

“We’re already quite advanced in programs for building and home efficiency,” he continued. “We already are changing out our vehicles — 31 (more fuel efficient) vehicles to date.

“So those areas are already happening and we wanted to add to that, and it was direct emission reduction.

“I understand that there’s arguments on both sides of this, but you have to factor in the long term. We are growing. Our customer base is growing. We are converting, right now in Whitehorse, heating systems over to electricity, so there’s more and more demand coming on to the grid.

“And with things like the Minto mine coming on, we’re getting ready to ensure that we’re not going to increase emissions, but we’re going to dramatically reduce emissions.”

Several more mines could potentially be in the Yukon’s future as well, he said.

If Minto uses hydropower rather than diesel generators, the Yukon will emit 20,000 less tonnes of carbon dioxide, he said.

New mines or not, Mitchell sees $5 million going into a turbine that could have been spent more wisely, he said.

“We’re saying it doesn’t do anything for years, and the YUB recommended they wait until closer to 2013.”

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