Alternative energies face uphill battle in hydro loving Yukon

Gordon Howell believes the green energy revolution is happening - it's just moving a little more slowly than he'd like. "We're in this transition phase," said Howell, who co-owns a solar panel-installation company in Edmonton.

Gordon Howell believes the green energy revolution is happening – it’s just moving a little more slowly than he’d like.

“We’re in this transition phase,” said Howell, who co-owns a solar panel-installation company in Edmonton.

“We always base our decisions on the way things have been done for the last 15 to 20 years,” he said.

In that way, Canada’s major power companies, and the governments that regulate them, aren’t moving into alternative energy with much zeal, he said. The lure of diesel and hydro economics is too strong.

“I can appreciate the regulators and the governments moving along and doing all their planning based on the past to predict load growth with more coal, more hydro and more diesel,” he said.

“But it seems the governments, the regulators and the utility companies have just dismissed alternative energy.”

Howell was a speaker Tuesday morning at the Northern Energy Conference at the Yukon Inn, offering the 100-person audience the latest research on why solar makes economic, ecologic and electrical sense.

“Twenty years ago, (solar) was for backyard tinkerers,” he said. “But today that’s just not where they’re at.”

And so it is for many alternative energy technologies. No longer a futuristic fantasy, the time for wind, biomass and solar – and not to mention better energy efficiency – is now. Industrialized economies, including Germany, the United States and China are pinning their hopes on manufacturing a new generation of energy infrastructure.

The Yukon isn’t adjusting so quickly. The $120-million Mayo B dam project, the installation of a new turbine at the Aishihik power station, and plans to augment lake levels for existing dams signals the territory’s main generation company, the Yukon Energy Corporation, isn’t diversifying from hydro any time soon.

And at least four off-grid communities, serviced by the privately owned Yukon Electrical Company Limited, are still powered by big noisy, dirty diesel generators.

“Utility companies themselves, they say, ‘Oh Gordon, it takes us years to make our changes in our codes and practises,’” he said. “But you don’t have years anymore.”

Other small businesses in the alternative energy field feel the same way. This week’s conference, organized by the Energy Solutions Centre, is gathering experts from across Canada and overseas to figure out how the Yukon can make its energy supply cleaner, more diversified and efficient.

“The energy question is getting more obvious because energy prices are going up and we’re experiencing climate change,” said Simon Koeb, who works for Austria-based Viessmann Manufacturing.

Koeb’s employer specializes in building products for wood pellet and other biomass heating products. The company has installed wood chip operations in the Northwest Territories.

“We’re hoping for similar success here,” said Koeb.

On Tuesday, attendees watched presentations on recent advances in light bulb and lighting, solar energy, biomass heating and more efficient ventilation in houses.

“The target audience here is people who are already interested in energy,” said Colin McDowell, director of the Energy Solutions Centre.

But the conference is also directed toward business owners who are looking to save money on their power bills.

“To see all these people talking and saying we need to put in these new lights or light bulbs is great,” he said.

It’s these small businesses that will find little breakthroughs for alternative energy.

In Old Crow, Howell’s company, Howell-Maywell Engineering, just finished installing solar panel system on the Information and Operations Centre for the new Vuntut National Park. The system will producer 2,800 kilowatt/hours a year, according to Howell’s calculation.

On a larger scale, energy diversification has been pitiful in the territory. Yukon Energy’s two wind turbines on Haeckel Hill have fallen into disrepair after years of neglect. They were intended to be an experiment so Yukon Energy could predict future investments in wind. But because they weren’t given a priority on maintenance runs, wind experts argue that they’re now useless at predicting the feasibility of a wind farm in the Yukon.

And after years of chiming in on the alternative energy chorus, Whitehorse announced last month its much-hyped investment in geothermal energy for the Whistle Bend subdivision is a sorry bust.

As well, there are no major solar installations in the Yukon, but the technology’s rapid growth is taking everyone by surprise.

“Including the industry,” said Howell.

An installation that cost $40,000 in 1995 costs only $15,000 today, he said. He predicts solar energy with reach cost parity with diesel in Alberta within two to four years.

But perhaps the biggest sign of many governments’ intransigence toward alternative energy are subsidies to diesel.

“It’s huge,” said Howell. “For instance, if someone in Old Crow has a solar power source and sells electricity to the grid, there’s no tariff that says we will buy your electricity at this (lowered) rate.”

“There’s no policy from the Yukon government or the Yukon Utilities’ Board to mandate that tariff,” he said.

In the Yukon, every ratepayer pays into a subsidy that help covers the cost of buying diesel. That’s why power doesn’t cost more in off-grid communities than it does in Whitehorse.

But that policy makes diesel look more efficient than it is, and it prevents diversification, said Howell.

If solar and wind were given the same kind of favoritism by policymakers, they’d knock diesel out of the water, he said.

Some jurisdictions, like Ontario, Nova Scotia, Saskatchewan and BC are making progress with the introduction of other energy sources, he said. And the Yukon could have some luck with the government’s new policy on independent power producers it’s working on.

But with Ottawa’s focus on only one kind of alternative fuel, corn-based ethanol, and the gutting of federal subsidies for other alternative energies last year, such as programs to help build wind turbines, the rest of the alternative energy industry is looking for help battling the old habits its up against.

“If there wasn’t any status quo there to begin with, solar would have a much better time,” said Howell.

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