Yukon’s next power play

Energy Minister Scott Kent is right that now is a good time to begin planning the Yukon's next hydro-electric dam - if we're using "good" in the sense of "better late than never.

Energy Minister Scott Kent is right that now is a good time to begin planning the Yukon’s next hydro-electric dam – if we’re using “good” in the sense of “better late than never.”

As Kent himself notes, it will probably take between 10 to 15 years for a new dam to actually be built. Given how long the government has been receiving warnings that the territory’s power surplus is quickly disappearing, and given how rising power rates affect pretty much everybody, why has it taken so long to get the ball rolling?

The Yukon Party has been in power for more than a decade. During that time the government has always boldly asserted that its policies – rather than, say, world metal prices – were chiefly responsible for the boom in mineral exploration and production we saw until the recent, disconcerting decline. (This drop-off, funnily enough, is no fault of the government. For that, you can blame world metal prices.)

Well, if the government was so confident in its ability to boost the Yukon economy, why didn’t it plan to adequately expand our electricity supply to support this growth, one may wonder?

An honest answer would be that predicting the economy’s future trajectory is a mug’s game, and that anticipating our future power is not much easier, given the challenges that come with having an electrical grid that’s isolated from other jurisdictions.

Over-build and you end up having to pay for costly assets that are not actually earning a return. The Yukon learned this in the 1980s, as it built a fourth wheel for the Whitehorse dam only to see the Faro mine shutter, leaving a big surplus of potential electricity – and a big bill to pay off.

Under-build, meanwhile, and you end up where we may be soon fast approaching, with demand far outstripping supply, resulting in a whole lot of dirty, expensive diesel being burned to keep the lights on.

We’d be willing to wager, however, that the Yukon Party has a plan of sorts already prepared. It simply isn’t touting it yet, perhaps because it is still sussing out its viability and fears that spilling the beans too soon could lead to later embarrassment.

The proposed West Creek hydro project near Skagway could generate up to 25 megawatts of electricity. Town officials have tried without luck for the past six years to cadge state funds to conduct a feasibility study. Yukon government officials have lately expressed enthusiasm for the potential of tying this project to the territorial grid, and in October, the governments of the Yukon and Alaska announced they would each spend $150,000 to study the creation of a such a power link. The results are due by mid-2014.

Tying West Creek to the Yukon’s grid would be mutually beneficial. Skagway could use extra juice to help power docked cruise ships during the summer months, when the Yukon has a surplus of hydroelectric capacity. And the Yukon could suck up the surplus power during the winter months, when we currently depend on burning diesel to help offset the energy consumed to heat homes.

Yukon Energy officials note that there are several other small potential hydro projects along the route to Skagway, providing opportunities for future expansions. And extending the grid in this direction may even bring us one step closer to one day connecting with British Columbia’s grid.

Linking up with Skagway could provide one final benefit. If we decide to string power lines out that way, we could run a fibre-optic cable, too, providing an alternative route for Internet data to travel. The Yukon government is currently studying the feasibility of doing so, with the aim of then tying into an undersea cable near Juneau.

That could provide a backup route for when our existing datapipe, which runs down the Alaska Highway, fails. More importantly, it would break NorthwesTel’s monopoly control over the only fibre-optic connection from the Yukon to Outside, encouraging Internet competition and driving down prices.

Yukon Energy has a long list of potential hydro projects, but none appear to offer as many benefits as West Creek.

Many questions remain about how these schemes would work. But it all amounts to something approaching a plan. The government could be more articulate in expressing it.