102 – Arctic and subarctic renewable energy resources

Before we get on to the technologies:

A word of caution: no amount of engineering will fix a broken human system.

The problem all along has not been a lack of alternative technologies, but overwhelmingly social and political pressure applied by fossil fuel corporations to sink any competition to their monopoly on human energy.

This has metastasized into the current climate crisis, with the help of extremely high levels of corporate consumer advertising (brainwashing) to make us feel like we are not worthy unless we buy new stuff all the time and have a high-consumption lifestyle.

Expecting a new renewable energy technology to “save us” is its own form of denial-ism; it is denying the truth about why we are in this mess and placing blame on the engineers who we wrongly think could just not invent something good enough.

Instead, these amazing technologies, like the 1830’s invention of the hydrogen fuel cell and the 19th century invention of water electrolysis to produce hydrogen using hydroelectric and/or wind turbines, were buried as niche products and were never allowed to get the scale necessary to reduce costs. Oil companies did this by flooding the market with cheap oil whenever competition surfaced and with backroom deals with corrupt politicians.

Really, our sociopolitical situation that has made energy the exclusive domain of for profit corporations that do not care about affordability, or the environment, or even fair trading in a so called “free market”, is the reason we are here.

Edison’s functioning battery electric car c.1913

With that said…

Engineers and technologists still have a lot of work to do.

Clearly, we need alternative sources of renewable energy to be rapidly scaled up as part of a two-pronged approach to tacking the problem (reducing consumption and improving the environmental efficiency of that consumption at the same time).

The renewable technologies all exist but need to be deployed at scale to realize cost effectiveness and beat out fossil fuels. Waiting until they are cheaper will not work; they will only become cheaper with scale and with citizens and governments investing in the long term despite a higher cost today.

The Yukon Territory government has identified five renewable resources for energy development in the Arctic and subarctic climate zones:

  • Solar
  • Wind
  • Hydroelectric
  • Geothermal
  • Biomass

We will not discuss these technologies in detail here, since there is much information available on Wikipedia and other websites on how these technologies work. We will only present the issues with delivering renewable energy using these technologies in the Arctic.

Storage of renewable energy is also an issue to ensure that it can be delivered on-demand, year-round, enabling the complete retirement of fossil fuel generators. Current options for renewable energy storage include:

We will discuss storage technologies in line with the discussion on renewable power generators, since they are closely linked.

Solar power

Solar photovoltaic (PV) arrays are very simple and robust, making them ideal for very remote power generation where maintenance is difficult.

They are also quite effective at generating indirect solar power from off-angled sun. Therefore, they do not require tracking motors.

However, the direct efficiency of PV technology (in converting available solar energy to electricity) is currently limited to about 20%. Solar-thermal power systems (discussed below) are better options for larger-scale solar power plants which are reasonably accessible for maintenance.

Arctic challenges:

Arctic solar power installations have a very short generating period, depending on the latitude.  Direct solar power to communities during the few months of summer can offset significant diesel and LNG use.

Large scale battery banks can extend the useful power output of solar arrays to overnight, several cloudy days or even up to a week. Batteries are highly efficient over a short-term charge-discharge cycle, but they are heavy, large and expensive to ship to remote communities. They require regular replacement and they also self-discharge. They are not a feasible solution for seasonal (winter) storage of solar energy.

Tying solar PV arrays with a seasonal energy storage system (e.g. pumped hydroelectric storage or hydrogen electrolysis and storage) enables the use of solar power in winter. Naturally, the seasonal solar power installation will have many more solar PV modules than a direct solar-to-community power system.  This is because the power is intended to supply the community’s needs year round, instead of only for a short summer period, and because there is some efficiency loss in the conversion process.

Solar-thermal power technology:

Larger scale solar power plants can use solar-thermal technology, which involves the sun heating a working fluid which drives a turbine to produce electricity.  At large scale, and when the power plant is reasonably accessible for more frequent maintenance of the moving turbine/s and sun tracking motors, this is the preferred choice. It has a much higher total efficiency than is possible with PV technology.

California, Nevada and Spain all have large solar-thermal power facilities.  As of yet, we are not aware of any large-scale solar thermal power plants at greater than 60 degrees latitude.

A solar power tower that focuses sunlight onto a hot “receiver” to generate power. Source: Wikipedia.




Wind power

Due to the large, flat tundra expanses and strong temperature gradients, there is a high potential for wind power in the Arctic.  Wind blows year round and can be an excellent source of renewable energy.

The primary issue is that the moving machines are difficult to operate and maintain in the extreme Arctic cold. Secondly, bird mortality is a significant issue with traditional wind turbines.

Heated blades are one anti-icing technology that is in the process of commercialization, but high costs are currently a barrier to wider adoption. Development of wind turbine technology has not historically focused on cold-climate applications as it is a niche market globally.

Energy storage is less of an issue with wind turbines that have anti-icing systems installed, since wind blows year round. Large-scale battery systems may be able to supplement wind power generation without the need for pumped storage or hydrogen electrolysis (except when zero emission vehicle fuel is desired).

Research continues, but in any foreseeable future, wind power will play a major role in the Arctic.

Hydroelectric power

Hydroelectric dams are better for the environment than fossil fuels, but they come with permanent changes to fish and wildlife habitat.  Many Arctic and subarctic residents who live sustainably are not in favor of dams.

Salmon are incredibly important to our ecosystem and bring fertile nutrients from the ocean on to land. Dams kill both juvenile (downstream) salmon and adult (upstream) salmon and reduce fish passage rates.

Dams also slow the river and increase its temperature, which when compounded with global warming is potentially setting up an extinction event for the cold-water species.

Ironically, pumped storage systems intentionally reduce the amount of water spilled over dams (since this is lost energy) and therefore block an important pathway for juvenile salmon to get past the dam. Instead, juveniles are sent into the turbines where biologists estimate 10 to 15 percent of them are killed.

Alternatives to pumped storage:

Run of river hydroelectricity is a promising area of development, one that can be tied to a renewable hydrogen electrolysis and storage system. As we said, most climate models indicate a likely increase in average precipitation.  This means that as solar power decreases, there may be increased opportunities for a new, less impactful way of using wild rivers to generate and store useful power.

Renewably produced hydrogen is significantly more energy dense than pumped storage hydroelectric power.  A dam of 14 meters high (the Whitehorse dam in Yukon Territory, Canada) contains 0.137 MJ per cubic meter of stored water.  Hydrogen stored at 0 Celsius in a 200 bar CSA-approved pressure tank contains 2131 MJ per cubic meter. This is over 15,000 times more energy dense.

As a result, much less land (and animal habitat) needs to be used to store energy and salmon and other species are not affected as the hydrogen storage tanks are self-contained. The energy is also highly transportable (by road or sea) to where it is needed, without any power lines.

Geothermal power

Geothermal power is an under-developed but very promising source of renewable electricity in Canada’s western, mountainous provinces and territories and Alaska. It provides steady, reliable power and heat in winter when demand is highest and solar power is unavailable. It is very widely used in Iceland, a place rich in natural volcanic activity. The United States and New Zealand are also leaders in geothermal energy technology.

The Yukon Territory in Canada has an estimated 1,700 MW of geothermal energy potential. This is 18 times the current renewable energy generation (2017). Most current feasibility studies are focused on hot water and building heating applications, such as near Takhini Hot Springs. Electrical power generation using geothermally driven steam turbines requires water temperatures of above 49 C.

One of the most promising locations for geothermal energy development (according to the CANGEA report) is in north-eastern Yukon. While current geothermal energy development focuses on sources closer to major population centers, we are studying the remote region’s potential for large-scale geothermal heat and electrical power production to electrolyze hydrogen. The area’s proximity to the Dempster Highway allows for export of renewable hydrogen fuel via tanker-trailer.

Heat pumps:

Geothermal heat pumps are typically installed much shallower than full geothermal power production systems. They can be installed as shallow as 2 meters (6 feet) deep. The Yukon government is actively promoting their installation through a home energy rebate. By pumping heat from underground soil (which is warmer than the outside air in winter) into buildings they improve heating efficiency by 3 or 4 times versus a direct electric heating element.

Geothermal heat pumps can also reduce the energy costs of heating remote industrial plants, cold-weather wind turbines and community greenhouses. They can be used in reverse to cool buildings in summer (by pumping heat into the ground) although there is a significant risk of this accelerating permafrost melt, which is already happening due to climate change.

Storage of geothermal energy is not typically required, since the Earth provides a very steady source of underground heat and power (once the well is drilled). Peak power needs (bursts of heat or electrical power that are above the steady power provided by the geothermal system) can be provided by a battery bank, capacitor bank or thermal energy storage.

Biomass

Biomass encompasses a wide range of biological fuels that can be used for energy:

  • Wood fuel from sustainably managed forestry
  • Energy crops (e.g. switchgrass to produce ethanol for vehicle fuel)
  • Food waste
    • From agriculture
    • In landfills
  • Human and animal sewage

Wood fuel has already been used for a very long time as the primary source of renewable heat in boreal forest climates. Thermal efficiency improvements to existing and new buildings, and reductions in typical North American home sizes (e.g. the tiny home movement) will reduce the amount of wood fuel burned per dwelling.

As the population in colder Northern regions of the world increases as the planet warms due to climate change, these efficiency improvements and strict regulations against over-harvesting can keep the forests healthy and sustainable.

There is also a significant amount of waste biomass in Arctic and subarctic communities that can be used for fuel. Much of this is from imported goods like food and packaging waste. Examples include:

  • methane generated from organic decomposition in landfills, mostly from food waste
  • plastic packaging waste that is currently land-filled in most Arctic communities
    • this fuel can be incinerated for power and the resulting greenhouse gas emissions and particulate emissions can be captured and the carbon re-sequestered into the soil, or
    • there can be investment into local plastic recycling infrastructure to make new and useful products for export
  • human waste is currently being studied as a fuel in Kenya, a nation that has dealt with significant deforestation (wood is the only fuel source available to many citizens of developing countries) and has a high population density

Arctic and subarctic communities already have major problems trying to grow local food year-round for human consumption. Cheap year-round renewable energy is desperately needed to heat and power greenhouses to reduce reliance on food imports. We believe energy crops that produce ethanol fuel are not likely to be a consideration for remote cold-climate communities for the foreseeable future.

Wood biomass is also not a feasible option in tundra climate zones, since wood (other than driftwood) is not available.

Biomass can be a great part of the solution, and in boreal forest climates, there is a substantial amount of dead wood mass that can be sustainably used to provide heat and small amounts of electrical power.

Summary

Due to increasing climate uncertainty, we cannot fixate on one renewable energy source and ignore the need for diversification

It is imperative that we build a balanced portfolio of renewable energy generation sources, as well as renewable energy storage systems, to ensure that we have the year-round certainty to power communities, homes, businesses and vehicles without the need for fossil fuels.