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Yukonomist: Ten more Atlin power projects

Some readers thought I was indulging in some newspaper column hyperbole last week when I suggested we needed ten more projects like the Atlin Hydro Expansion.

Some readers thought I was indulging in some newspaper column hyperbole last week when I suggested we needed ten more projects like the Atlin Hydro Expansion.

Actually, it might be a major understatement.

Statistics Canada says that in 2018, the latest data available, the Yukon’s total final demand for energy of all types was 9677 terajoules. Of this only 1518 terajoules or 16 percent came from renewable electricity.

Our electricity system may include lots of clean hydropower thanks to the big dams built by previous generations, but we mostly use fossil fuels to heat our homes and power our vehicles.

Canada has committed to Net Zero carbon emissions by 2050. Last year, Ottawa increased our target for 2030 to a 40 to 45 percent reduction from 2005 levels (the previous target was a 30 percent reduction). The territorial Liberal-NDP alliance agreement included a similar target for the Yukon by 2030, with an exemption for the mining industry. The Yukon government is committed to Net Zero for the whole economy by 2050.

The number of Atlin Hydro Expansion projects we’ll need depends on some big unknowns about what this future Net Zero world will look like.

If we get 16 percent of our power from renewable sources now, some quick math suggests replacing the other 84 percent of fossil energy will require 6 times more renewable power than we have today. If the Atlin project will boost our electricity grid by 8 percent, but our electricity grid provides only a sixth of our energy, then we would need the equivalent of around 75 Atlin projects to replace the fossil energy in the Yukon.

Even more if the population of Whitehorse and its surging demand for energy keeps growing.

Fortunately, the math is more complicated than that. One reason is that we expect the future Yukon economy to be much more energy efficient. For example, it takes much less energy to drive a kilometre in an electric car compared to a gasoline car. Even the most efficient gasoline car needs a radiator to get rid of the waste heat from the engine. That’s energy being dissipated uselessly into the air.

Energy gurus at the International Energy Agency (IEA) recently put out a report on Canada’s energy system. Canada is a larger version of the Yukon in that although much of its electricity is renewable, fossil fuels are the majority of energy use overall. Nationally, 22 percent of energy comes from hydro, nuclear, wind, solar and other non-fossil sources.

Taking improved efficiency and other factors into account, the IEA estimated that to achieve Net Zero Canada would need renewable production to double or triple by 2050.

How many Atlin projects would be needed to triple the renewable energy produced in the Yukon? If the Atlin project will boost the Yukon grid by 8 percent, and 90 percent of the power on the Yukon’s grid comes from renewable sources today, then we would need over 20 Atlin projects.

Of course we won’t build 20 copies of the Atlin project. Some hydro projects might be bigger, or smaller. There will be wind and solar facilities. We might get one of the small modular nuclear reactors that Canada is working on.

We might end up needing less electricity than in the IEA scenario. This could happen, for example, if we use renewable diesel from canola oil to power some of our diesel trucks, diesel generators and home heating systems.

Yukon Energy has a 10-year renewable electricity plan which it is implementing to build more renewable capacity. This includes the Atlin project, a pumped storage project at Moon Lake and a beefed up grid in the Southern Lakes region to enable more projects like Atlin in the future. They are also in talks with Skagway about a cross-border power deal.

The Yukon government does not, yet, have an energy plan consistent with its Net Zero commitment.

Yukon government energy planners are undoubtedly working on it. This will involve making lists of potential hydro, wind and other projects at various locations around the Yukon. The Atlin project is around 100 kilometres from our grid, and it appears to be economic to connect the project to the grid at that distance, so that gives us a clue as to how far from the grid future projects can be. They will also be weighing these options against the uncertainties around nuclear, biofuel and other technologies.

One thing we can be confident about is controversy. Whether we end up with half a dozen projects like Atlin and Moon Lake, or several dozen, there will be replays of the community opposition to the Atlin project and its impact on grayling, wetlands and viewscapes.

To feed Whitehorse’s growing need for renewable electricity, creeks will need to be re-routed and mountain tops covered with wind turbines. New access roads and transmission lines will be bulldozed into the landscape.

In each case, there will be strong arguments from energy planners that the project has good economics and much lower environmental impact than the alternatives. The investors, which may include local companies and First Nation development corporations, will argue in favour.

In each case, this will be unconvincing to local residents who will bear the disruption but don’t drive an electric car around Whitehorse or benefit from the project’s profits.

Some ecologists argue that none of this would be necessary if we used much less energy per person. Yukoners are among the heaviest energy users on the planet, and some have visions of a future where the residents of Whitehorse live in much smaller houses, in denser neighbourhoods near downtown, where they bike to work and the kids walk to school.

I will leave it to the reader to decide how sensible it would be for a government energy planner to work off that scenario instead of making lists of the next ten Atlin projects.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist, author of the Aurore of the Yukon youth adventure novels and co-host of the Klondike Gold Rush History podcast. He is a Ma Murray award-winner for best columnist.