All powerpoint, no bulldozer

The Yukon government needs to get serious about building more renewable power capacity

Keith Halliday | Yukonomist

As you may have suspected if you drove past the smokestacks of Yukon Energy’s liquefied natural gas plant, we broke a power consumption record over the holiday cold snap. We peaked at 92.69 megawatts at 5:16 p.m. on Dec. 30, according to data provided by Yukon Energy.

But our power appetite wasn’t limited to cold days. We used fossil fuel energy every day in December. In fact, 2017 overall broke a record for total power used in a year. It was eight per cent higher than the year before and more than a third higher than a decade ago.

Our power appetite is rising inexorably. Population growth, greater use of electrical heat and renewed mining activity are all part of the story.

And since we haven’t built any major new renewable power generation capacity since 2011, increased power use means burning more fossil fuels. As I write this column, almost a quarter of our power is coming from fossil fuels.

It’s a strange paradox. We talk incessantly about climate change, but don’t use our transfer payment money to build much in the way of new hydro or windmills.

You may have heard Albertans use the phrase “All hat, no cattle” to criticize pretend cowboys who talk a big game but don’t actually do any ranching.

Could our renewable power policy be described as all powerpoint, no bulldozers?

We do have an impressive surplus of Powerpoint slides and glossy reports about renewable power.

There’s the territorial government’s glossy and photo-filled Climate Change Action Plan from 2009, which the Auditor General recently panned. “The commitments in its action plan and progress reports were weak,” said the AG, adding that “many of the commitments did not include milestones or completion dates.”

Then there’s the Next Generation Hydro project, also a Yukon government initiative, which was looking at building another big power dam. It has a snappy website and some finely produced consultation materials, but the last update is from Dec. 6, 2015.

The new territorial Liberal government’s platform in 2016 also made promises to increase the availability of renewable energy.

However, if you look at the “Projects” page of Yukon Energy’s website you’ll find precisely zero projects underway to build significant new renewable power.

This isn’t Yukon Energy’s fault. Every five years they produce a “resource plan” with lots of technical analysis, projections and proposed projects. The 2016 version includes a set of projects in the planning phase designed to meet our needs for power at peak periods and throughout the year, without causing too much pain to our wallets.

The plan includes renewable elements such as incremental upgrades to existing hydro facilities and battery storage to move power from surplus to peak periods. It also includes fossil fuel, such as a third natural gas generator in 2019.

Combined with our reliance on fossil fuels for home heat and transportation, this leaves us increasingly exposed to volatile oil and gas prices, as well as future carbon taxes. Ironically, our carbon emissions are going up while even the Americans are on a downward trajectory (as coal gets replaced by natural gas and some renewables).

Yukon Energy’s job is to generate reliable power at a reasonable price. Unlike, say, a road or school construction project undertaken by a regular government department, Yukon Energy’s regulator requires it to do rigorous business cases and recover the cost of its power investments from users.

It won’t invest tens of millions in a major push to transition the Yukon to renewables unless its owner tells it to and provides the extra cash.

And it’s owner is … you. Or, more precisely, the Yukon government.

There is nothing stopping the Yukon government from using some of our billion-dollar transfer payment to build more renewable power plants. It should treat these like road projects or school expansions and pay the full cost, giving Yukon Energy power that shows up on its books as essentially “free.”

This is subsidizing power, something economists usually hate. But we already subsidize roads, schools and lots of other things, and in this case the objective of having plenty of cheap, renewable power is worth it. Not only is it good for the planet, but cheaper power is good for jobs and companies too.

Since the Northern Canada Power Commission was devolved to the Yukon and became Yukon Energy, we have been responsible for our own power system. Being responsible means investing in the future. In the past, the Yukon government has sometimes milked Yukon Energy of dividends without investing. At other times, it has given priority to other departments for their capital projects. The last major renewable project, Mayo B in 2011, only happened because there was a global financial crisis and the federal government rolled out a big national stimulus program. The feds paid the biggest share of that project.

As the Yukon matures, we need to move beyond the attitude that we don’t do anything unless Ottawa is funding it. We should be investing in our own future. We should have our own renewable construction program, creating local jobs and business opportunities as well as keeping power prices low.

This will require leadership from the territorial government. That means vision, money in the next capital budget, and the ability to get past Powerpoint and start moving dirt.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the MacBride Museum’s Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels. He is a Ma Murray award-winner for best columnist.

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