Yukon Energy is looking to squeeze a few more megawatts of electricity out of the Whitehorse hydroelectric plant.
But in order to do that the utility needs to raise the level of Marsh Lake.
Under the terms of its water licence between May and August, Yukon Energy has to let the water in Marsh Lake flow naturally.
In the late summer, once the water level in the lake falls below 653.7 metres above sea level, the utility is allowed to close the gates on the Marsh Lake control structure to store water for the winter.
The maximum level under its licence is 656.2 metres above sea level.
Yukon Energy wants to raise that maximum by 30 centimetres.
It doesn’t sound like a lot but it works out to more than 168 million cubic metres of water, and that translates into a lot of electricity.
“The reason we want to hold the water back is because we need it in the winter time because that’s when we need the most electricity,” said Janet Patterson, spokesperson for Yukon Energy. “The way it is now, that’s when we have the least amount of water available to us.”
In the summer, the Whitehorse hydro plan can produce 40 megawatts of electricity, but in the winter the capacity is cut almost in half to only 25 megawatts.
To make up some of that difference, Yukon Energy relies on diesel generators.
By raising the level on Marsh Lake, more water is available and those generators wouldn’t have to run as much, said Patterson.
“In terms of savings for us, we figure it would save us $2 million a year in diesel,” she said. “If we went ahead with this project, it would be equivalent to all the Marsh lake residents going carbon neutral.”
But with concerns over the potential for increased shoreline erosion, groundwater contamination and possible degradation of wildlife habitat, many Marsh Lake residents aren’t that enthusiastic about the plan.
“It seems to be a stopgap measure for little return,” said Marsh Lake resident Perry Savoie. “You can say what you want about cutting the use of diesel power, but the potential detrimental long-term effects, in my books, are much more important than trying to create a few megawatts of additional power.”
Yukon Energy has been studying those potential effects for more than two years.
“From everything we’ve learned so far we don’t think there are any show stoppers,” said Patterson. “We think that any effects can be mitigated in a way that’s technically possible and it’s affordable.
“We’re not talking about mitigation that takes millions and billions of dollars.”
Over the last few months, Yukon Energy has been hosting workshops and information sessions in an effort to engage and educate the public.
Both Patterson and Savoie agreed that they have been productive discussions.
Most of the scientific studies are now complete, but there are still a few gaps to fill in, said Patterson.
“In some cases these things have never been studied before,” she said. “Even if the project doesn’t go ahead it’s always good to have this information.”
Over the next year, Yukon Energy is going to be making an effort to reach out to First Nation communities.
“We’ve got all kinds of scientific knowledge but we also need the traditional knowledge,” said Patterson.
If all goes well, Yukon Energy is looking at submitting a project proposal to environmental assessors by early next year.
Before that happens, there will be another round of public consultations.
Nothing is scheduled yet, but Patterson said they’re working on it.
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