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.

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.

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 upfront 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.

Solar power

Advantages: highly reliable, 25 year life, no moving parts

Disadvantages: Needs a seasonal storage system like pumped hydroelectricity or hydrogen electrolysis and storage to work year round

Opportunities: Combining PV arrays with seasonal storage, Concentrated solar power (higher efficiency than PV but requires more maintenance)

Wind power

Advantages: Good Arctic wind resources, year round power production potential

Disadvantages: Blades need to be heated to prevent ice formation in winter, may kill some birds, needs more maintenance than solar PV

Opportunities: Wind can supplement a renewable energy system that produces hydrogen vehicle fuel through electrolysis of water

Hydroelectric power

Advantages: Large baseload power, can provide year-round (seasonal) storage with a dam

Disadvantages: Large concrete hydro dams take up large areas of animal and fish habitat, reduce fish passage rates and decrease biotic diversity

Opportunities: With advances in alternative storage technologies like hydrogen electrolysis and storage, run of river hydroelectric facilities can be used as an alternative to concrete mega-dams

Geothermal power

Advantages: Reliable year round baseload power plant that actually increases power in winter, Very low land use area since the majority of the plant is underground

Disadvantages: Geothermal is widely developed in Iceland, the USA and New Zealand but is relatively new to Canada. The plants require deep drilling which presents capital costs.

Opportunities: The Yukon Territory contains an indicated 1500 MW of geothermal potential, about 17 times the current demand of the entire Yukon. Therefore it provides a great opportunity to electrolyze water into hydrogen for vehicle fuel and to deliver to remote communities that do not have geothermal resources

Biomass

Advantages: Great for direct heat applications using sustainably managed forestry, presents an opportunity to use landfill and other waste for energy

Disadvantages: In most small Arctic communities, there is not enough biomass for cost effective energy production. Many methods to extract energy from waste (e.g. gasification) require a consistent stream of input materials like paper only, which is not feasible in small communities.

Opportunities: The best application for northern biomass is to use directly for heat; there is not enough biomass for large scale electricity production

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:

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.