No clear best-alternative to diesel power

Ashley Fitzpatrick
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Conference participants discuss benefits, challenges of generation options

The 22nd Prime Power Diesel Inter-Utility Conference is underway and runs through Thursday at the Sheraton Hotel and Conference Centre in St. John’s.

By Ashley Fitzpatrick

The Telegram

Newfoundland and Labrador Hydro is not the only utility in Canada trying to find the most reliable, cost-effective method of delivering power to small populations on isolated electricity systems, scattered across large land areas.

As evidenced by first-day presentations at the 22nd Prime Power Diesel Inter-Utility Conference in St. John’s Monday, no one solution for powering these systems has come out as being above the rest.

Alternatives to diesel — including wind, solar and small hydro —  continue to be explored, but are still typically being brought in as part of existing diesel-fed systems rather than as a replacement, and all with their own challenges.  

Small part

As a province, according to a power customer mailout, Ontario is on about 57 per cent nuclear-generated power, 22 per cent hydro and 15 per cent natural gas. Alternative sources — solar, wind and biomass — amount to a little more than three per cent of the total generation.

In a conference address, Kraemer Coulter of Thunder Bay-based Hydro One said his utility serves more than 20 remote communities — mainly powered with diesel. There are two small “run-of-river” hydro projects and four windmills also in service for the communities.

Of the isolated communities served, 13 are limited to air access and ice roads for their service routes.

“Imagine, if you will, the expense and logistical challenges of arranging oil shipments and maintenance equipment to be sent over winter roads stable for a shorter and shorter period of time as years pass. Six weeks is probably the best we get in recent years,” Coulter said of the ice roads, pointing to global warming as a real concern.

Fuel-filled flights still carry in about two-thirds of the diesel required by Hydro One’s isolated systems.

In the Northwest Territories, meanwhile, there is experience with powering communities with fewer than 50 customers. There, solar is in favour.

The Northwest Territories Power Corp. announced a $760,000 solar power development at Fort Simpson’s airport in March 2012. Fort Simpson is the second-largest diesel user for the utility, after the community of Inuvik.

About $700,000 of the total cost of that power project was covered by the territory’s Department of Industry, Tourism and Investment. Another $350,000 was paid by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources for an expansion in February of this year.

Yet the solar development is still an offset and not a replacement for diesel. The development is expected to be able to power about 17 houses at any one time — about 15 per cent of the community.

There are challenges such as winter snow cover, but the Northwest Territories has developed a solar energy strategy and is aiming to displace about 10 per cent of its diesel power generation by 2017.

“We are currently meeting with communities so they understand it better,” said Northwest Territories Power Corp. representative Mike Ocko, addressing conference delegates in St. John’s.

Ocko also spoke about natural gas, with his utility having announced a pilot project for Inuvik, for testing the cost-effectiveness of liquified natural gas power.

“The price (gap) is getting wider … the price of diesel fuel is increasing,” he said, when asked about the appeal of liquified natural gas over diesel.

Hydro is another option.

In November 2012, the Northwest Territories Power Corp. announced the completion of the largest capital project in its history — a $37.4-million project. The Bluefish hydro dam will be used to provide power to homes and businesses less isolated, in the area of Yellowknife. The dam has the potential to cover up to 20 per cent of Yellowknife’s power needs.

Along with pressures to find the new generation system of choice, utilities dealing with isolated power systems in Canada have been tackling cost increases in recent years related to worker retention and for meeting safety and environmental standards.

About 100 people — representatives from utilities including Newfoundland and Labrador Hydro, Manitoba Hydro and B.C. Hydro — were on hand for discussion of the topics in the opening session of the St. John’s conference.

The event is an initiative of the Canadian Off Grid Utilities Association and is scheduled to continue through Thursday, hosted by Newfoundland and Labrador Hydro.

“This is a forum for off grid utility members to interact and learn from each other,” said Dave Hicks, Nalcor’s manager of electrical engineering. He is also the conference committee chairman.

Organizations: Newfoundland and Labrador Hydro, Hydro One, Northwest Territories Power Prime Power Department of Industry Department of Environment and Natural Resources Manitoba Hydro B.C. Hydro Grid Utilities Association

Geographic location: Canada, Northwest Territories, Ontario Fort Simpson Thunder Bay Inuvik.About Yellowknife Inuvik

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