Yukonomist: Irony versus Climate

Yukonomist Keith Halliday

Yukonomist Keith Halliday

Lately it seems like Irony has taken over as Editor-in-Chief at media outlets across the Yukon.

And while doing so, she seems to be having a lot of fun at the expense of long-suffering Climate.

How else to explain stories like these?

The Yukon government put out a flashy new strategy on climate change, then had to admit that it was renting 19 big diesel generating units for its Diesel Park, the South Access Road’s newest attraction.

Rudolf Diesel might laugh ironically at the news. Instead of being driven to apparent suicide by the early financial struggles of the engine he invented, Herr Diesel could have stuck around and learned that only his engine could keep the citizens of the Yukon territory from spending a winter shivering in the dark.

Then it was reported that the Yukon, with its 42,000 people and a billion-dollar annual transfer payment from Ottawa, has been forced to open negotiations with the Taku River Tlingit First Nation in tiny Atlin to buy surplus power from their Xeitl power company. Irony would send out the staff photographer to get photos of Yukon First Nation development corporations who will not have the opportunity to sell power to the Yukon grid.

Finally, we learned that while city council was debating whether Climate faced an emergency, the city was working with Irony behind Climate’s back on a story about how their flagship Canada Games Centre had switched from mostly-renewable electric heat to fossil fuel.

Each of these moves had a certain short-term logic in the immediate circumstances.

The Yukon population and therefore demand for electricity has grown. Despite the despair that provoked Herr Diesel to allegedly throw himself overboard back in 1913, diesel generators are powerful, portable and easy to operate. Therefore, if you are desperate for power you should rent one.

The Atlin deal also has a logic. Xeitl’s micro-hydro facility on Surprise Lake uphill from Atlin generates steady power. They negotiated an iron-clad 25-year deal to sell power to BC Hydro. The only better kind of business is a machine that prints money. If they can lock in another deal with a desperate electric company from a triangular-shaped jurisdiction to the north, why not?

Indeed, they are the only ones that come out of these episodes looking good. Consider the position they have created for themselves through their foresight in constructing their micro-hydro facility. The negotiations with the Yukon will go something like this:

Yukon: We’d like to buy some electricity.

Xeitl: Here’s the contract.

Yukon: That’s expensive! We could build our own dam!

Xeitl: Can you? That’s why you’re here.

Yukon: Oh right. Where’s the pen? I’ll just tell our Strategic Comms team not to put the price in the press release.

There is also a short-term logic to the Canada Games Centre switching to fossil heat. A few years ago, the dams built by previous generations still generated surplus power. Yukon Energy sold this surplus at a discount to hotels and recreation complexes. But then demand grew, renewable generation facilities did not, and the surplus dried up.

If there was no cheap surplus power, the next cheapest option for the City of Whitehorse was fossil fuel. A minor victory in the short-term for taxpayers, but another surprise snowball in the back of the head for Climate.

Despite the short-term logic, in the bigger picture none of this makes sense. The UN treaty on climate change was signed in 1992. The Yukon government has been putting out climate plans practically since PowerPoint was invented. The Yukon has many lakes that look a lot like Surprise Lake, plenty of wind, and maybe even geothermal if we looked seriously for it.

Instead, our power planning has settled into a sad cycle. The transfer payment goes up by a few percent each year. The Yukon government hires a few hundred new people. Since unemployment is low, most of those people come from Outside, many with spouses and families. Once here, all those people use electricity. Then winter comes and — surprise! — we have to rent more diesel generators.

At some point in there, a forlorn engineer from Yukon Energy sends an email with the latest load forecasts to nobodyslistening@gov.yk.ca.

Some like to blame Yukon Energy for all this. But it’s not their fault. They run things day-to-day, but if they want to build big new generating assets they need direction and investment from their owners: the Yukon government. And the Yukon government would have to take money away from projects like widening the Alaska Highway or renovating the skateboard park.

There is renewed talk of new projects in addition to connecting to Atlin. This is good.

Government spokespeople also pointed out that it takes time to build energy assets. This is true. But this government was elected four years ago, and other than some small solar and biomass projects we haven’t seen any big new renewable generation projects go live.

Given the lack of progress by current and previous governments over the last decade to build the supply needed for our highly predictable growth in power demand, I’ll remain skeptical until I see new assets actually pumping kilowatt-hours into the grid.

Back in the 1950s, people thought diesel exhaust smelled like economic growth. But this winter, as Yukoners drive past our new Diesel Park, they will wrinkle their noses at the whiff of bad planning and inadequate leadership. In the meantime, Irony is drafting a story for next year about how the Yukon has opened negotiations to buy power from Skagway.

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 and received the bronze for Outstanding Columnist in the 2019 Canadian Community Newspaper Awards.

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