The Quest to Turn the Arctic Into a Clean Energy Outpost Has Begun

"A lot of the remote communities are dependent on diesel."

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Mar 23 2017, 9:02pm

The Canadian government's 2017 budget, released on Wednesday, funded a climate disaster mitigation fund and pledged billions to clean energy. It committed $21.9 billion to green infrastructure in the next 11 years, and listed a four-year $2.37 billion investment to the clean technology industry.

On the same day as the announcement, a group was flying out from Yellowknife to visit the tiny community of Colville Lake, in the Northwest Territories. A few dozen students and administrators, part of the Arctic Remote Energy Networks Academy (ARENA), were halfway through their first week-long session in learning about sustainable energy.

ARENA—comprised of three sessions, first in the Northwest Territories (March), then in Alaska (June) and finally in Reykjavik (October)—is an Arctic Council and multi-government collaboration that looks at clean energy possibilities in the north.

Read More: Canadians Were Promised Internet For All, But the Budget Doesn't Deliver

"The intention is to take energy champions from remote communities across the Arctic, and give them the skills, knowledge and network so they can develop and build renewable energy programs for their own communities," Robert Cooke, ARENA's curriculum developer, told me.

"A lot of the remote communities are dependent on diesel," he said, and aside from the huge environmental costs of this source of energy, "diesel generation across the north is extremely expensive."

Given that food and internet prices in northern Canada are unfathomably high, this isn't much of a surprise. But sustainable energy technologies—for solar or wind power, for example—are also expensive.

"The costs are coming down," Cooke told me, adding that as more people invest in the equipment, the cheaper it becomes. The program's aim isn't to encourage students to bring expensive technologies to their communities, he said—the point is to learn the how and why. "It's much better to have people from the areas driving forward these projects than having some industry or some government coming from the south and putting in an extremely expensive wind project that fails."

One of the other topics that the ARENA team will look at is energy storage. If new technologies can take energy produced in, say, a sun-filled summer in Whitehorse (where Cooke lives, off the grid) and use it between the long, dark winter months when his solar panels aren't very useful, it would vastly improve the efficiency of the system.

"The idea is that over the three programs, participants will get a really balanced view of all the different types of technologies," Cooke said. "So they can go back to their own communities and they can, using local and traditional knowledge…help reduce diesel dependency."

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