Power to the people

The fellow at the front room was worked up discussing some facet of medium-size hydro projects. "I miss this," said Piers McDonald, flashing an impish grin. The oblique remark referenced the pandemonium of public meetings - citizens discussing stuff.

The fellow at the front room was worked up discussing some facet of medium-size hydro projects.

“I miss this,” said Piers McDonald, flashing an impish grin.

The oblique remark referenced the pandemonium of public meetings – citizens discussing stuff.

It’s sometimes messy. But it’s important.

McDonald knows this.

The former premier, land developer and chair of the Yukon Energy Corporation has a long history in the public eye, but of late has moved into the territory’s boardrooms (Northwestel and Golden Predator among them) and out of the limelight.

But this week at Mt. McIntyre he was skirting its edges again as the Crown-owned utility started hunting for new sources of power through a “charette,” a pompous label for brainstorming session.

The territory’s power situation is grim.

For years, the utility has had surplus power and it coasted. But now industrial activity is on the rise and that,coupled with an explosion in personal electronics (TVs, computers, cellphones, among other gizmos), has left Yukon Energy short of juice.

And it’s only going to get worse.

The utility can burn diesel to meet its needs. But if you look at the situation in the Middle East right now, and visit your neighbourhood gas station, you’ll find fuel prices skyrocketing.

Using oil to generate electricity starts at roughly 35 cents a kilowatt hour. And that’s when a barrel runs between $60 and $80. Above that, each kilowatt gets steeper still. It’s damn expensive.

Hydro costs the territory about 13 cents a kilowatt hour. But there’s no longer enough hydro to feed the beast. And it’s going to get worse.

What’s a utility to do?

For years, it has been bunkered down talking to windmill guys, nuclear guys, transmission guys, biomass guys, demand-side managers, hydro guys. And generating studies.

But this approach hasn’t allowed these factions to interact much - there hasn’t been much cross-pollination.

Until now.

The brainstorming session is a first step, said McDonald.

A baby step, really. An attempt to get the energy wonks together in the same room, shed their built-up frustrations, get them acquainted and talking. And to hook the power-interested public into the process as well.

To an observer, it is sometimes stupidly banal.

We have to put forward a portfolio of energy solutions that accomplishes something, said Simon Fraser professor Mark Jaccard, former chair of the BC Utilities Commission.

Thank you for that.

And the territory should focus on achieving affordable, reliable, environmentally responsible power sources that are flexible, he added.

Can we have a show of hands of people who want the opposite?

But wrapped in the warm fuzzies, the energy community is talking.

And, it’s hoped that, within this incubator, a transmission guy talking to a conservationist and the nuclear, windmill and biomass guys might, eventually, spark some ingenious ideas to solve, or diminish the territory’s energy crisis.

The goal, after all, is simple: save us some cash while keeping the lights on.

For the utility, it’s a new, citizen-friendly approach at innovation and concensus.

For McDonald, who drafted the Yukon’s cutting edge education legislation, brought the internet to rural Yukon and who, several years ago, suggested boosting downtown Whitehorse’s population density to stave off expensive expansion and spark economic opportunity, it’s old school.

It could get messy. But it could also get electric.

And that’s precisely what the utility needs right now.

(Richard Mostyn)

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