Solar power in the Arctic? Iqaluit is giving it a go
Canada's northernmost capital city is trying to quit diesel by soaking up the sun.
Over the last six months, Canada's National Observer has been looking into what's working and what's failing in cities across Canada as they rise to the challenge of fighting climate change. In a 13-part series, we will be taking you across the country, province by province, for a look at how cities are meeting the climate emergency with sustainable solutions.
- With the Arctic warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet, Nunavut is trying to confront climate change by cutting its reliance on diesel-generated electricity.
- Qulliq Energy Corporation, the territory's power provider, has launched a net-metering program that allows residents with solar panels to send energy back to the grid and receive a discount on the power they draw in return.
- But high overhead costs pose a challenge for homeowners — one Iqaluit resident paid $19,000 for his solar array, a price tag many can't afford.
Nunavut’s capital city would seem a less than auspicious place for solar power, given that on Dec. 21 — the shortest day of the year — there is only three and a half hours of daylight.
But in the summer of 2020, installers attached 12 solar panels to Iqaluit lawyer Paul Crowley’s 1,800-square-foot house. Then, in November, his renewable energy system came online, and he connected to the Nunavut power grid.
During the darkest days of winter, Crowley’s home draws substantial power from the grid. However, even in those months, his solar panels manage to supplement his energy requirements.
“The monitoring that we have on the panels shows me that even in the short days of December, January, when it was sunny — and of course that doesn’t happen every day — we were getting sometimes over half of our power from the panels, and those are in the shortest days,” Crowley noted. By mid-February, he says his home was receiving “upward of 70 per cent” of its power from the solar panels.
Greenhouse gas emissions in Nunavut are rising and that trend is expected to continue until 2030.
As Nunavut grapples with the accelerated pace of climate change in Canada's North, it is hoping to reduce its carbon footprint. The territory has not set its own climate targets but does comply with the federal carbon pricing system, which will raise the price of carbon to $50 per tonne by 2022. Still, greenhouse gas emissions in Nunavut are rising and that trend is expected to continue until 2030.
With help from the federal government, Nunavut is trying to reduce its reliance on diesel by investing in solar and energy conservation measures. Community energy audits provide advice to residents on how to improve efficiency and reduce energy consumption.
High overhead costs pose a challenge for homeowners like Crowley hoping to make the switch to solar energy.
Currently, the net-metering program is open to residential customers in Nunavut and to one hamlet account per community. Rick Hunt, the president and CEO of Qulliq Energy Corporation (QEC), says the utility hopes to launch a commercial and institutional power producers program for existing businesses by the end of fiscal year 2021, pending territorial cabinet approval.
I’ve been wanting to do this for years, for not just the savings, but for wanting to avoid burning diesel if we can as much as possible.
Paul Crowley, Iqaluit homeowner
Crowley hopes that by the time the northern days stretch longer, the solar panels will supply more power than he uses from QEC’s diesel-generated electricity, allowing him to send any excess energy he produces back into the grid.
In return for that extra energy, Crowley will receive credit for future power use from the QEC, allowing him to offset his home power bill, which runs between $2,000 and $3,000 annually.
“I’ve been wanting to do this for years, for not just the savings, but for wanting to avoid burning diesel if we can as much as possible,” Crowley said, referencing the fact Iqaluit’s residents draw on energy produced from central diesel power plants for their electricity and heat.
With his 4,440-watt array — more than enough to power his home’s lights, heating, hot water system, computers and other assorted gadgets drawing on electricity — Crowley gained the distinction of becoming the first resident of Iqaluit to install home solar panels under the QEC’s net-metering program, first announced in 2018.
A lot of people are curious about his $19,000 solar array, Crowley said, “but they want to see how it goes before they jump in.”
I think it really comes down to not everyone has that money to put upfront, so financing it is a challenge for many people.
Paul Crowley, Iqaluit homeowner
And that’s the problem: to date, a lot of people appear unwilling to take that leap of faith.
So far, only 14 individuals have opted into the net-metering program, all of them in Iqaluit. Those who have signed up receive a bi-directional meter that tells the QEC how much energy the customers have consumed, and how much energy they send back into the grid, and which may be used in conjunction with the solar array.
Crowley said after people admire his solar panels, they immediately ask him if there are subsidies. However, such a program doesn’t exist. Crowley paid for his system upfront and will amortize it over the next 10 to 12 years.
The creation of a subsidy program would go a long way to encouraging people to add solar, according to Crowley. “I think it really comes down to not everyone has that money to put upfront, so financing it is a challenge for many people.”
The initiative makes a lot of sense in the territory. In its 2018 report, the Office of the Auditor General of Canada issued a dire warning about the impacts of the climate crisis on the region.
They included a reduction in sea ice offering less protection from waves and storm surges, making communities more vulnerable to coastal erosion and flooding; thawing permafrost causing risks to infrastructure from shifting foundations; and severe rains causing local flooding and washouts.
Diesel, the territory’s primary means of power, presents another problem. Martha Lenio, a specialist on renewable energy in the Arctic with World Wildlife Fund Canada and a QEC board member, said the territory’s reliance on diesel comes with serious issues.
All 25 of Nunavut’s communities are powered by stand-alone diesel generators. According to Lenio, the fuel comes into the territories by ship once a year and is stored in large tank farms. During the transfer of the fuel from the boats to the tanks, the potential for spills exists, as well as when it’s stored in the communities.
In 2018, for example, a 4,000-litre fuel spill took place at the Grise Fiord power plant, the “result of failed power plant components.”
Lenio also noted the World Health Organization classifies diesel exhaust as a carcinogen and that it exacerbates many respiratory illnesses, including tuberculosis, which many Arctic communities still struggle with, and others resulting from mouldy homes.
She also pointed out it’s expensive to generate electric heat from diesel. “That impacts food security if you have to make a decision whether to pay your energy bill or to eat. It has a really huge impact on families.”
Given such concerns, the QEC has introduced a number of other renewable energy initiatives, including the installation of 472 LED streetlights in Iqaluit, with an additional 56 scheduled for the end of March. QEC hopes to replace all of Nunavut’s streetlights by 2024.
The utility received partial funding from the federal government to replace streetlights in four territorial communities, with the work completed in 2018. Then the Nunavut government allocated $2 million in carbon tax funds to replace all the conventional streetlights throughout the territory.
Hunt said the lights help reduce the territory’s carbon footprint, last longer, and save money for both municipal and territorial governments while making the streets safer through improved illumination.
QEC and the City of Iqaluit also signed an agreement in April 2020 for a new district heating plant connecting the city’s aquatic centre, water treatment plant, water booster station, and water reheat station.
The district heating system is designed to capture thermal energy from industrial generators during electricity production and transfer the heat through connected buildings using a distribution system. The city estimates it will save some 1,500 tonnes of greenhouse gases annually by using the alternative system to heat the four buildings.
But while initiatives such as the LED lights are a success, the net-metering program has been slow to catch on.
However, Crowley said for those Iqaluit residents who can afford such systems, they should consider adding renewable energy. “Anyone who plans on being a homeowner for longer than 10 to 12 years should consider it as a possibility. The panels are likely to last at least 25 years, likely longer than that, so I think the payback — not just for your own bills, but environmentally — are well worth it.”