The Yukon Development Corporation will look at small-scale hydro and other renewable energy projects as it makes plans to meet the territory’s electricity needs 20 to 50 years from now.
The decision is an about-face for the Yukon government, which gave the corporation a mandate to develop one or more large-scale hydroelectric projects back in 2013.
Even in March, after it became clear that none of six possible sites chosen for a hydroelectric dam had public support, Brad Cathers, the minister responsible for the corporation, insisted that large-scale hydro was the way to go.
“We still think that as a long-term option, that a large-scale hydro project will probably ultimately end up being something that Yukoners will choose compared to the costs of other energy options,” he told the News at the time.
But now, in response to public opposition to a major hydro project, the government has softened its tone. The development corporation will now consider a mix of small-scale hydro, solar, wind and other renewable projects as well.
On Monday, Cathers said he “probably” would do things differently if he could start the process over again.
“I think that including some of these options at an earlier stage would have been helpful to move the planning process along,” he said.
But Cathers still cautioned that smaller renewable projects will likely cost more than a single hydro dam.
“If (Yukoners) prefer those options and are willing to pay the associated incremental increases in cost, then it’s up to them to make those choices,” he said.
Last fall, Midgard Consulting released a report showing that a portfolio of small-scale renewable energy projects with pumped storage could supply Yukon’s electricity needs for $270 per megawatt-hour, compared to $240 per megawatt-hour for large-scale hydro.
The company also selected six final sites for a hydroelectric dam, but the government hasn’t been able to drum up enough public support for any of them. The six sites are all in the Pelly, Stewart and Liard watersheds. They would have a capacity of between 54 and 107 megawatts, and would cost between $850 million and $3 billion to build.
The proposed sites have attracted significant opposition from affected First Nations. The Selkirk First Nation has passed a resolution against any hydro dam in its traditional territory. Cathers said the First Nation of Nacho Nyak Dun has also said it’s “not interested” in discussions about large-scale hydro.
During public consultation meetings, Cathers said, “one of the things that was heard repeatedly from Yukoners … was that they still wanted to see more information about those (small-scale) options.”
However, Yukon Development Corporation spokesperson Luke DeCoste said a large-scale hydro project is still on the table.
“The economics of large-scale hydro are still some of the best,” he said.
Both he and Cathers confirmed there will be little progress on energy planning before Yukoners go to the polls this year.
“We’re going to slowly move down this road,” DeCoste said. “I don’t anticipate anything new or large happening before the next election.”
Cathers said the next generation hydro planning process has cost about $4 million to date.
He said the development corporation may borrow some ideas for small-scale projects from Yukon Energy, which is looking at ways to meet the territory’s electricity needs for the next 20 years.
Anne Middler, energy analyst for the Yukon Conservation Society, said she’s pleased with the decision. She hopes a portfolio of smaller projects will help distribute the benefits of energy development across the territory, particularly among First Nations.
“They know that there are other options out there that don’t require such a large sacrifice of traditional territory,” she said.
She suggested that opposition to the next generation hydro project became “overwhelming” for the government. But she also hinted that the change of plans smacks a little of electioneering.
“This is a nice political move for them on the eve of an election,” she said. “‘Look at us listening.’”
Contact Maura Forrest at email@example.com