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Should we make Yukon Energy obsolete?

I spent the lion's share of last week up at Mt. McIntyre attending Yukon Energy's charette.

I spent the lion’s share of last week up at Mt. McIntyre attending Yukon Energy’s charette.

It was a pretty grueling three days, consisting mostly of sitting on an increasingly sore duff, listening to sector expert after sector expert stepping through all the policy, civic planning, resource and technology options and conundrums around electrical power generation in the Yukon.

The event has already had lots of media coverage in local print, radio and television, so I am not going to bore you with a belated, stunted rehash of the issues.

First, most of those discussions lie well outside my narrow field of technical competence; second, they were too numerous and complex to submit to summary in a 900-word column.

I am going to use this space, instead, to present two ideas (well, really more questions than ideas) that were pointedly not discussed at the charette, or discussed only in the most cursory, dismissive manner: Why do we continue to dismiss coal-generated energy as at least a short term option in the Yukon? And why must we assume that we will always need a local power utility to produce our electricity?

A caveat here: both questions (which I had either the boldness or lack of polities of try to get on the table) are controversial.

Though I attended the charette in my professional capacity with the Yukon Research Centre of Yukon College, I was careful to make it clear that, in making my suggestion of those two things as topics for discussion, I was talking on my own authority, not as a voice for the YRC.

We had been invited to “think outside the box” (a cliche I grow more and more weary of, with every public event I attend), and I decided, briefly, to see just how far out the box my fellow attendees really wanted to think.

In both cases, I was disappointed, if not surprised or embittered by the lack of interest in either question.

On the question of coal-generated energy, for instance, one member of my discussion group threatened to just plain leave the charette outright if it were going to suggest looking at coal as an energy source.

On top of that, the leader of my discussion group allowed the idea of planning an eventual link up of grids with BC Hydro, and the abolition of our local utility, to die abandoned and alone on the vine - though not, in fairness to her, because she was a Yukon Energy employee, because she was not.

Having failed there, I will now see how they might fly in print.

Again, I want to make it clear that I am not advocating either of these ideas, simply saying that they are serious enough to warrant more attention than environmental activists and energy-policy wonks want them to receive.

My question about coal arose in the context of discussing the impact of the central bugaboo of the conference—diesel-fired electrical generation, which is polluting, non-local, and price-unpredictable.

Though YEC currently uses relatively little diesel, except at peak load times, and in a few rural communities that remain off grid, the prospect of YEC or mining companies resorting to more and more diesel as the territory runs out of hydro power is very real.

Given that the charette had arrived at four key energy principles - that power should be affordable, reliable, flexible to supply and demand, and environmentally responsible - I wondered why an option which met at least three of those criteria was not on the table.

Though opening up a coal mine for local energy production probably makes little economic sense, it might make sense to look at using that resource as an energy source, if a coal-for-export operation opens up in the future.

Granted that coal is not at all an ecologically friendly energy source, and that “clean coal” technologies remain in their early stages, and have questionable economic viability, the fact remains that the burning of local coal could, in fact, be a reasonable substitute for burning imported diesel.

What is needed (and what I am not equipped to provide) is a benefit/damage analysis of this proposition: How much more polluting would coal be than diesel? How much pollution are we currently generating in trucking diesel up to and around the territory? How much would the local production of local coal energy mitigate the environmental cost of shipped diesel?

Now on to my second controversial idea: That maybe we should look at plans to eventually link up with BC Hydro’s power grid, and eventually make YEC obsolete.

The downsides of this are immediately obvious: loss of energy sovereignty, loss of jobs and the very high initial cost of making the initial connection.

On the other hand, as the speakers made so clear at the charette, YEC operates with a mind-numbing number of constraints as an isolated power distributor in an isolated environment where costs are high and the market is small.

It might be possible to keep a Yukon Utilities Board in place to oversee the pricing and practices of a power company, even if it that company was not locally headquartered.

To its credit, YEC did include the link-up with BC Hydro as a future option for Yukon power generation - though they mentioned nothing about merging commercial operations at the same time.

Again, a benefit/damage analysis of this as an option, either with or without the eventual obsolescence of YEC as a corporate entity, does not seem to me a waste of time or energy.

In any case, whatever the value of either idea proves out to be, my basic point remains the same: There is little sense to conducting a brain-storming public charette if “thinking outside the box” is going to be allowed only if it actually stays in the box.

Rick Steele is a technology junkie who lives in Whitehorse.