Yukon Energy isn’t just blowing hot air when it talks about wind power, says Hector Campbell, the utility’s vice-president.
“We know that there are a lot of strong wind advocates here and we are too, which is why wind is still on the table for us,” he told the 40-plus attendees who came out for the public portion of Monday’s wind energy workshop.
It was a decidedly pro-wind crowd that showed up to hear presentations from six industry experts.
There’s a lot of wind power potential in the Yukon, said J.P. Pinard, an engineer and wind energy prospector.
If any one knows, it’s Pinard, whose PhD thesis was a wind energy assessment of the territory.
And that potential is increasing thanks to climate change.
Warmer temperatures mean bigger storms in the North Pacific, and that translates into higher wind speeds for the territory.
The average wind speed has increased 15 per cent over the last 50 years, said Pinard.
There is no shortage of potential wind farm locations in the territory. Yukon Energy is currently considering two. A 2009 study of the wind potential of Mount Sumanik – which was released after the Yukon Conservation Society filed an access to information request last year – showed it to be a viable location for a wind farm. The utility is also studying the potential of another location on Ferry Hill, just across the river from Stewart Crossing.
While road access, transmission lines and the footprint of the turbines themselves do have an environmental impact, wind is viewed as having a high degree of environmental responsibility, said Cam Osler the CEO InterGroup Consultants, which helped craft the latest update to Yukon Energy’s 20-year resource plan.
Yukon Energy currently has the capacity to generate about 400 gigawatt-hours of renewable electricity, but more than 200 gigawatt-hours could be needed in the next few years if the mines that are being planned actually make it into production.
The problem is that the mining load is temporary. It’s expected to drop off significantly by 2020, and because the Yukon doesn’t have a way to export its electricity there’s no way to sell the surplus.
That leaves Yukoners having to pay the capital costs of energy projects through their rates.
“In the Yukon you either use it or you lose it,” said Osler. “That’s the first bump in terms of basic economics.”
In addition, the utility’s admittedly optimistic projection that getting consumers to use energy more efficiently will cut electricity consumption by two-thirds over the next few years makes the economics look even worse for capital-intensive projects like wind.
While there is potential to replace some of the fossil fuel used to heat homes and power vehicles with electricity, that’s really a long-term planning goal, said Osler. The looming energy shortage isn’t.
Yukon Energy’s ultimate goal is to get to 100 per cent renewable power, but to meet the temporary demand from the mining sector it’s looking at the possibility of using liquefied natural gas to pick up the slack.
Like diesel it’s a flexible energy source, meaning it can be turned off when it’s not needed to save money. While far from clean, natural gas does burn about 40 per cent cleaner then diesel and it’s much cheaper thanks to the recent technological advances in the industry – namely the controversial technique of hydraulic fracturing.
And that has a lot of people in the territory concerned, including Pinard.
“In northwestern B.C. there’s over 20,000 gas wells that exist,” he said gesturing to a map of the area. “Is this the kind of thing that we want to see in the Yukon?
“If we start going down that route this may be where we end up.”
Instead of the temporary mine load being a hindrance to building wind power, Pinard sees it as an opportunity.
“Right now there’s lots of talk about developing natural gas for producing electricity to service the mines. Well, what if we could get the mines to actually be part of this to help us develop renewable energy, so when they’re gone we still have renewable energy on the grid and not fossil fuel?”
Some mining companies are already doing just that, albeit out of economic necessity.
At the Diavik diamond mine in the Northwest Territories, owner Rio Tinto has installed four wind turbines to generate electricity and offset some of its rising diesel costs.
Here in the Yukon, Pinard is working on a wind project with the Kluane First Nation.
When completed, the 250-kilowatt wind farm is expected to displacing a quarter of the community’s diesel consumption, which will save about 160,000 litres a year.
“This is a real opportunity for us to get into this by developing renewable energy and wind is a good first step,” said Pinard.
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