Commentary: Thermal backup, or thermal backwards?

This year will be the year that Yukon drops below 90 per cent clean electricity

Cody Reaume

How did it come to this?

The year is 2019. The world’s leading climate scientists have crunched the numbers and found that we have 11 years left to cut our CO2 emissions in half or face catastrophic climate destabilization. School children around the globe are marching in the streets with the mantra “You’ll die of old age, we’ll die of climate change.” Governments from Scotland to Old Crow are declaring climate emergencies.

Meanwhile, Yukon’s crown corporation electrical utility is planning more fossil fuel generators.

Now don’t get me wrong, I get why Yukon Energy is taking this step. The territory’s electrical loads are growing, and we would be in a bad situation if a major hydro power plant failed on a cold winter’s day.

Something needs to be done, and it’s much faster to install a thermal generator than build a diversified portfolio of alternatives.

But we knew this situation was coming, and not enough was done – by Yukon Energy or by Yukon government decision-makers.

Yukon has had a surplus of hydroelectricity since the Faro mine closed in the late 1990s but the territory’s electrical load has grown steadily and now the surplus is gone. Low snowpack this year means that in May our electricity was 26 per cent fossil fuel derived, rather than 3 per cent in May of last year.

This year will be the year that Yukon drops below 90 per cent clean electricity, and quite possibly below 80 pre cent.

To be fair, Yukon Energy did build the 10MW Mayo B upgrade in 2011, but unforeseen flow restrictions meant the upgrade only added 7.5MW or less to our generating capacity.

Since then, Yukon Energy’s last major new generation project was the “emergency backup’” 8.8MW liquefied natural gas (LNG) power plant in 2015. In 2018 they increased its capacity by 50% to 13.2MW.

And now, in 2019, we are told we need another upgrade to our fossil fuel electricity “insurance plan”. This time much larger, a full 20MW (that’s half the capacity of the Whitehorse dam, Yukon’s largest power plant).

The fact that Yukon Energy is even considering using LNG rather than diesel would indicate that they expect to run the new plant a lot. Diesel generators are significantly less costly to buy and maintain, and the fuel can be stored for long periods. LNG’s primary advantage is cheap fuel – so if you are burning lots, LNG becomes more economical. If the new power plant is really for ‘occasional use’, diesel is the obvious choice.

Diesel fuel also avoids the hydraulic fracturing (fracking) and methane emissions associated with LNG extraction and transport.

I’m not saying I like diesel, but it’s better at backing up renewables. The higher capital cost and lower fuel cost of LNG make it more suited to baseload use, leaving less capital available for investment in zero-carbon solutions.

And it’s long past time for that investment – or we may never get back to the 98% renewable grid we were rightly proud of for so many years.

What can be done?

On the government level, one problem is that Yukon Energy has not been given renewable energy targets to hit. Yukon government should implement a ‘Renewable Portfolio Standard’ legislating Yukon Energy to obtain a high percentage of its energy from renewable sources.

Yukon government must also ensure that energy storage, conservation, and time-of-use programs become core tenets of energy policy in Yukon. Collectively known as demand side management, these initiatives can directly reduce peak demand on the grid and provide a dependable substitute to fossil fuel generators.

As for Yukon Energy, the utility needs more realistic electric load projections. Yukon’s annual electric load grew from 257 GWh in 2002 to 448 GWh in 2018. The Yukon Bureau of Statistics predicts that there will be an additional ~5000 people in Yukon by 2030. Yet, Yukon Energy’s models suggest the electric load 16 years from now will be the same as it is today.

The expectation that electrical load growth is only temporary is leading Yukon Energy to short-term solutions like fossil fuel generators. Renewables, by contrast, have no fuel cost, so the longer they operate the cheaper the electricity becomes. If the models predicted long term load growth, renewables would look more viable. If, for whatever reason, demand does end up falling, any excess renewable energy would enable us to electrify heating and transportation systems with clean energy. Considering the urgent need to transition away from fossil fuels, I would suggest the modelling should err on the side of more load, rather than less.

If we must add fossil fuel generators, I hope we at least minimize the damage. This means a low-cost (diesel), and temporary (rental) solution to meet the immediate capacity shortfall. Meanwhile, we need Yukon government and Yukon Energy to invest their effort and dollars strategically to tackle Yukon’s CO2 emissions in a major way. This includes ambitious demand side management, inspired clean energy policy, and a focus on community-centric renewable energy projects.

A 40-year commitment to a fossil fuel power plant isn’t the only option. Yukon Energy has a choice. Yukon government has a choice.

Please choose well.

A fully referenced version of this editorial is available at http://yukonconservation.org.

Cody Reaume is an energy analyst with the Yukon Conservation Society

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