Advancing clean electricity in Canada’s remote communities
One billion people lack access to clean and reliable electricity globally—over 200,000 in Canada’s northern and remote communities. Lack of energy access is not simply an issue of “keeping the lights on,” it is an impediment to economic development, hindering access to clean water, education and health services.
Diesel generators have been widely implemented in remote communities due to their technical simplicity and reliability. In Canada, remote communities rely on 215 million litres of diesel annually, resulting in extremely high costs (ranging from $0.30 to $2.60/kWh) and a carbon footprint from electricity generation nearly twice the national average (4.6 vs. 2.6 tons of CO2e per capita). The technical benefits of diesel generation come at immense operational and environmental costs, which ultimately prevents consistent electricity supply.
These concerns are at the forefront of lead researcher Mariano Arriaga’s work at the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department at the University of Waterloo. Mariano published a report with the IEEE Power and Energy Magazine that captures Canadian projects focused on integrating renewable energy into remote community energy supply. Importantly, this report also outlines the challenges associated with such initiatives. I had the opportunity to sit down with Mariano to discuss his research.
At the outset, Mariano highlighted non-technical and technical considerations that need to be addressed before renewable energy projects are considered in a remote community.
- Non-Technical: It is critical to understand the priorities of local communities, their perception regarding the local energy issues, and to establish a strong and mutually beneficial relationship.
- Technical: A proper understanding of the load profiles and load restrictions, among others, is important, as well as, proper assessments for energy savings or efficiency measures at the community level. These aspects and potential long-term solutions are significant challenges that are central given the logistical difficulties of such locations.
What are the leading benefits of deploying renewable energy resources to serve remote Canadian communities?
Mariano Arriaga (MA): There are some economic, environmental and social benefits of deploying renewable energy in Canada’s remote communities, given that certain frameworks and considerations are followed:
- Economic: Renewable energy deployment can deliver economic benefit to the community by reducing diesel-fuel consumption in locations where diesel generators are the main technology providing electrical power.
- Environmental: Renewable energy can reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the electrical energy generation process. However, currently for most remote renewable energy projects in Canada, this environmental benefit is quite modest since the bulk part of the generation is still based on diesel-fuel.
- Social: From a social perspective, renewable energy projects require significant collaboration between the involved stakeholders. If done properly, this collaboration can result in advances for the community, not only in the renewable energy area but also in other priority areas including economic development, access to health services, and education.
What are the largest barriers to broader deployment of renewable energy in Canada’s remote communities?
MA: In 2008, Tim Weis, Adrian Ilinca and JP Pinard published a paper focusing on this specific topic for wind-diesel deployment in remote communities. They highlight that high installation and operating costs, technology maturity, and onsite equipment and skilled labour availability are the largest barriers perceived by the involved stakeholders. To a high extent, these barriers are still strongly present in on-going and potential renewable energy deployments. Nevertheless, certain conditions have changed and there are some improvements:
- Reduced Equipment Costs: For some technologies, such as solar PV, equipment costs have reduced over the years; hence a slight improvement for remote deployment should be expected.
- Technology Maturity: A few renewable energy remote projects have been running (e.g., wind-hydrogen-diesel energy project in Ramea, Newfoundland) for a few years and have proven technically and operationally feasible. Yet, these successful projects have yet to extend across Canada.
- Equipment and Skilled Labour: Equipment and skilled labour barrier is likely to continue in the medium-term until more renewable energy projects are deployed in such locations. Evidently this issue can be seen as a cause or a result of the limited amount of projects.
What are some of the non-technical challenges associated with deploying remote hybrid microgrid systems?
MA: Renewable energy projects in remote communities require the involvement of various stakeholders: community, First Nations (if applicable), provincial or local utility, government agencies, developers, researchers and manufacturers, among others. Hence, an adequate and prompt communication channel among the involved stakeholders is a significant challenge during all project stages. Long-term relationships among stakeholders is highly desirable to increase the opportunity of successful projects; especially since these projects are likely to take a few years from the proposal to the implementation phase. In addition, stakeholders are likely to have different priorities over the project lifetime. Thus, renewable energy projects require efficient project management that can ensure that deployment costs do not significantly increase due to communication challenges or changing priorities.
Despite these challenges, there are exciting projects underway across the country! Tell us about some highlights.
MA: Yes, it is an exciting area where awareness has been increasing in the last few years and more people are getting involved in. In 2013, the Renewables in Remote Microgrids Conference hosted at MaRS presented some of highlights of the renewable energy projects underway in Canada. I believe that one of the main highlights is that we are starting to see different participants driving the implementation of renewable energy projects (e.g., communities, industry (mines), independent energy providers, research institutions, and government agencies). I hope that the lessons learned from their diverse projects can be shared across Canada to further develop renewable energy in remote communities.
For further reading, check out:
- Arriaga, M., Cañizares, C., & Kazerani, M. (2014). Northern Lights: Access to Electricity in Canada’s Northern and Remote Communities. Power and Energy Magazine, IEEE, 12(4), 50-59.
- “Improving global energy access, big problem, mini-grid solution”