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Yukon College, utilities hope new research chair sparks energy innovation

Michael Ross’ new job is simple: find energy solutions for the three territories. Easy, right?

Michael Ross’ new job is simple: find energy solutions for the three territories.

Easy, right?

The new Industrial Research Chair in Northern Energy Innovation at Yukon College is tasked with figuring out the best way to build up the North’s supply of renewable energy.

Ross must juggle the needs of three wildly different markets, ranging from Yukon’s relatively well-developed hydro grid to Nunavut’s scattershot array of disconnected and aging diesel power plants, with the Northwest Territories falling somewhere in between.

“I plan on doing as much travelling as necessary to get the work done,” Ross told reporters Monday. “I don’t plan on sitting full-time in my office, doing work, running simulations. I want to be on (the) ground.

“Necessity is the mother of innovation,” he said. “I could have stayed down south and been an expert in one field, but coming up here and seeing the different projects going on … as an engineer it really attracted me to this position.”

Ross is backed by $2 million over the next five years, half of which is coming from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada. The other half is coming from each territory’s publicly owned utility, plus ATCO Electric, which distributes power in the Yukon, Hay River and Yellowknife. The money will cover salary and research costs, and the college hopes the position can also attract more research funding from Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada and Natural Resources Canada.

Andrew Hall, president and CEO of the Yukon Energy Corporation, said the utility hopes the chair’s research will lead to lower rates for consumers and help Yukon cut its greenhouse gas emissions. But he said there are no particular targets the consortium expects Ross to hit.

“We’re not going to set a target (for renewables) because more’s the better…. We want to see how far Michael can push the envelope.”

But Emmanuel DaRosa, president and CEO of the Northwest Territories Power Corporation, said he hopes Ross’ work will help NTPC hit its own internal targets of reducing diesel use by half and becoming the top generator of solar energy on a per capita basis in Canada.

“This is certainly going to help us achieve that,” he said.

Still, the consortium has come up with a daunting to-do list. All three territories have communities that are off-grid and rely on diesel, so figuring out the best ways to deploy renewables in those places is at the top of Ross’ list.

He’ll also need to investigate the best systems to store renewable power in the North. A major knock on wind and solar generation is that they’re not always reliable and developing ways to store power for when it’s cloudy, or when the wind isn’t blowing, remains a challenge for utilities.

Ross will also research ways to make existing diesel plants run more efficiently, how the costs of various energy sources compare across the North, ways to help homeowners generate more off-grid power and the potential use of smart meters.

Ross declined to immediately identify technologies that might work best for northern communities, preferring instead “to approach this from an unbiased standpoint.”

One of the project’s first steps is to identify communities that would benefit most from the research. Some technologies can be deployed and tested right away, while others will have to be tested offline first, he said.

“We want to advance the northern energy industry but we don’t want to disrupt any reliability issues,” Ross said.

Ross is Yukon College’s second Industrial Research Chair. Amelie Janin is in the fourth year of a five-year program studying mine life cycles.

Contact Chris Windeyer at