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Conservation group raises red flags over future hydro dam

The Yukon Conservation Society is not happy about Yukon Energy's plans to build a big, new hydro-electric dam.

The Yukon Conservation Society is not happy about Yukon government's plans to build a big, new hydro-electric dam.

“We’re not big fans of big hydro, and there are definitely some flaws with the Next Generation Hydro process and in particular some aspects of the directive itself,” said Anne Middler, energy analyst with the society.

Yukon Energy has hired a consultant to firm up which hydro sites would best serve Yukon’s energy needs over the next half-century. A report is due in November.

What’s lacking, according to Middler, is a broader discussion about the type of energy solutions that will most benefit Yukon communities. Where there seems to be an assumption that a single large dam is the obvious way forward, she said, they would prefer to see consideration of several smaller projects instead.

“Big hydro - the presumption that a big hydro dam is going to be the magic bullet solution - we just don’t agree with that,” she said.

“We feel there are better ways to meet our energy needs without the associated environmental and socioeconomic and financial costs that are associated with big hydro projects.”

Middler noted that while Yukon’s “legacy” hydro infrastructure continues to provide the territory with affordable, reliable electricity and minimal reliance on fossil fuels, that infrastructure didn’t come without a cost. She cited impacts on fish populations in Mayo Lake and the Mayo River in the aftermath of Mayo A, and also said that an “erosion of trust” can result when major hydro projects come into conflict with hunting and fishing activities.

Middler also acknowledged that no source of power generation is without some form of cost. “We are very aware that all energy sources have environmental impacts.”

Ideally, conservationists would like to see the territory embrace a variety of smaller-scale energy projects that benefit the communities closest to them. That means wind, solar, and smaller hydro projects distributed across the Yukon.

They’d like to see an emphasis on projects that provide winter energy and storage options - not just the traditional dam and reservoir model, but also the possibility of high-altitude pumped-storage options. That’s when water from a high-altitude lake is channeled down to a lower reservoir, generating power - and then some of the excess power is used to pump it back up again to a higher altitude for winter storage, like a battery, Middler said.

Yukon Energy is currently considering a project along those lines at Moon Lake, along the South Klondike Highway.

Middler is also leery of the idea of connecting the Yukon grid to the larger North American grid - a possibility she said is being investigated by the consultants.

Remaining independent, she said, “gives us the opportunity to meet our own needs, it gives us the opportunity to be self-sufficient and to address our own challenges and solve them in innovative ways.”

She worries that planners might be seduced by the idea of producing more energy than Yukoners actually need, and selling the surplus to the grid.

“We do recognize that we need to be electrifying fossil fuel sectors with renewable energy on our grid,” she said. But relying on big hydro “would be creating new problems in our efforts to try to solve other problems.”