Whitehorse looks to battery storage to unplug from diesel

Yukon's capital is banking on battery storage and better transit to kick its fossil fuel habit — but finding affordable climate solutions for this northern city is no easy feat.

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.

September 7th 2021
  • Yukon's greenhouse gas emissions make up just 0.1 per cent of Canada's total — but they're on the rise, climbing nearly 12 per cent from 2009 to 2017.
  • In Whitehorse, Yukon's capital, transportation and heating are the two biggest culprits. But the city is hoping a new battery storage system will help it avoid switching to fossil fuels when the territory's hydroelectricity isn't enough.
  • Once complete, the 40-megawatt-hour battery will be the largest of its kind in the North and among the biggest in Canada.

If the energy project comes to fruition, it will change things in here for the better.

Lewis Rifkind, Mining Analyst, Yukon Conservation Society

Canada’s inhospitable climate makes it challenging to power its most northern cities, but technological advances are now increasing the range of clean energy options. Yukon is pinning its hopes on battery power as part of the solution. The territory is building a giant battery storage facility near the capital of Whitehorse, providing a new electrical source that will displace 20,000 tonnes of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions over a 20-year span.

“If the energy project comes to fruition, it will change things in here for the better,” said Lewis Rifkind, a mining analyst with the Yukon Conservation Society, who closely follows public affairs.

Once complete, the 40-megawatt-hour battery will be the largest of its kind in the North and among the biggest in Canada. It will store hydroelectricity to help secure Yukon’s grid, which currently relies on liquefied natural gas or diesel to power homes and other facilities during the winter, when temperatures fall to freezing levels.

Bitter cold forces people to wear face masks in the Yukon. Photo by Frank Busch / Unsplash

Yukon aims to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 30% below 2005 levels by 2030.

It will also allow Yukon to meet peak demand, and if hydro units experience problems during the winter, the battery will be a stable source of energy. This development comes at an opportune time, as discussions around climate change and the push to address it are a focus for Yukon, where GHG emissions increased by 11.8 per cent between 2009 and 2017.

Transportation and heating are the two largest contributors to Yukon’s greenhouse gas emissions; smaller amounts come from industry, electricity generation, waste and other areas. The territory is aiming to reduce emissions by 30 per cent from 2010 levels, some of which will involve a greater shift to electricity over fossil fuels, which is where the giant battery will play a role.

To date, the City of Whitehorse has not succeeded in lowering greenhouse gas emissions. Since 2017, the city has used more oil than electricity and spent nearly $2 million of its $5-million energy budget on heating oil, gasoline and diesel in 2019.

Whitehorse, Yukon. Photo by U.S. Embassy and Consulates in Canada / Flickr

This reliance on fossil fuels for heat and energy has the city’s emissions numbers trending in the wrong direction. The city's 2019 Sustainability Plan targeted a 10 per cent decrease in CO2 emissions from 2014 levels by 2020, but that goal was missed. Emissions caused by the city operations and transportation have also increased by 40 per cent since 2015 and peaked in 2019.

Though the territory’s impact is miniscule compared to its provincial counterparts — Yukon’s emissions make up only 0.1 per cent of Canada’s total — both Yukon and its capital city, Whitehorse, are determined to reduce their carbon footprints by tackling some of their biggest emitters head-on.

Topping the list of problem buildings is Whitehorse's Canada Games Centre, a recreation and event centre that serves as a training hub for the province’s athletes. In 2019, emissions from the centre rose because Yukon Energy couldn’t provide enough electricity to power the electric boiler.

In previous years, Yukon Energy had excess supply, allowing businesses and facilities to access discounted electricity. But in 2019, a small snowpack reduced the flow of water to the power company, forcing the facility to turn to oil for heat.

The city is spending $655,000 to upgrade the building’s waste heat recovery system in 2021. The new system will require less heating oil and is expected to reduce GHG emissions by 3.6 per cent.

Emerald Lake. Photo by Joris Beugels / Unsplash

Transit is also a major carbon culprit, responsible for nearly 61 per cent of the territory’s emissions in 2017. Whitehorse's transit fleet is the fourth-highest consumer of energy within the city and ranks third as a source for GHG emissions. Transportation emissions, too, have increased by 14 per cent since 2009, and the territory is trying to encourage more electric vehicles and creating funding for green initiatives along the way.

Increased carbon emissions from the transit fleet result from having buses and vehicles running more frequently, says Jason Bradshaw, Whitehorse’s manager of transit services. The city’s major focus is efficiency, but it is also looking at ways to become more carbon-neutral and lower the GHG emissions coming from its fleet. Whitehorse Transit has already made some transit improvements — in 2019, it introduced a new mobile app and purchased new diesel buses — and aims to incorporate more upgrades into future transit plans.

We're trying to develop a better system that suits the community better.

Jason Bradshaw, Whitehorse’s manager of transit services

“It's long overdue, but we have listened,” said Bradshaw. “We're trying to develop a better system that suits the community better.”

Even though Bradshaw anticipates the new transit plan will address some climate concerns, there is little point in discussing a move to electric buses. The costs are too high for a sprawling system like the Yukon's. Instead, Bradshaw will wait to see how successful Edmonton and Alaska's efforts to integrate electric buses into their fleets are before jumping in. “We will be watching to see how they last in their climate,” he said.

The City of Yukon says it plans to monitor how Edmonton and Alaska will be integrating newly purchased electric buses into their transit systems. Photo by Debborah Donnelly

One of the city’s other challenges in rethinking its transit service is Whitehorse’s expansive layout. The city covers 416.5 square kilometres, which is comparable to major Canadian cities like Montreal (431.5 km²) and Winnipeg (416.5 km²). The service operates Monday to Saturday but has no buses running on Sundays and holidays. Last call for service is at 10 p.m.

“We're currently looking at something that's going to be more efficient, allow people to get to their destination quicker and faster, more directly,” Bradshaw said. The city is currently considering reworking its transit routes to reach more neighbourhoods and better cover Whitehorse's sprawl.

Standing in minus-40-degree weather to brave the gusting winds is not ideal or recommended, but at times, it’s a necessity for some Canadians to get to work. Sarina Sydney is used to braving the harsh, freezing temperatures that come with Whitehorse winters while waiting at the bus stop.

“If the bus ends up being late and it's -40, I’m pretty frozen by the time it gets there,” said Sydney, who tries to arrive at least five minutes early to make sure she doesn’t miss the bus.

Rifkind says although there have been transit improvements, the system is not reliable enough to be the best commuting option. He has taken the far less traditional approach of using a bicycle as his main option for transportation. But Rifkind’s eco-friendly option, which he uses despite Whitehorse's tough winter terrain, does at times make him think twice.

Lewis Rifkind has chosen the eco-friendly option of riding a bike over transit despite Whitehorse's tough winter terrain. Photo by Cathie Archbould

“Getting around, if you're on foot or on a bike, is a nightmare at the moment,” he said.

Still, Whitehorse has grown its bicycle path network over the past few years and is looking to keep that momentum going.

Lowering the carbon footprint of Canada's most northern cities is no mean feat. But with incremental, diverse measures, Whitehorse is hopeful the upward emission trend will soon be reversed.

Keep reading


Climate change on our side for once. The wind speeds around Whitehorse have picked up by 1 m/s, to an average of 6 m/s, over the last 50 years. Happily, the wind speeds peak in December, minimum in July.

Unlike what Fox said about Texas, wind turbines can work well and very low temperatures, and Whitehorse could pair their batteries with several wind turbines to get more electrified and stabilize energy supply.