Friday, August 21, 2009

Keeping Iqaluit's Lights On

There are probably a few people in Nunavut who would rather it hadn't happened. Prime Minister Harper's recent tour of the Canadian Arctic, an overdue demonstration of governmental interest in the country's vast northern hinterland, was jolted on Wednesday morning by a widespread power outage in Iqaluit, the territorial capital. Until Wednesday, it's a fair bet that most southern Canadians probably didn't know if Iqaluit even had electricity.

The problem is that, until recent Russian and Danish noises and activities around the North Pole and Greenland alerted Ottawa to the fact that sovereignty can't be propped up with words alone, the federal government didn't really care about the north. The territory of Nunavut is slightly more than thirty thousand people spread across more than two million square kilometers of ground, and there are few people in the government who speak for them. Iqaluit's electrical generation capacity is, according to the Globe and Mail, a fifty-year-old plant housing four diesel generators. A recent Qulliq Power job posting for a Journeyman Diesel Mechanic in Iqaluit suggests that they're rather small, with generating capacities between one and six megawatts.

It's understandable why Iqaluit's electrical generation infrastructure is based on diesel generators - it's easy to use them, and that would especially have been the case fifty years ago. The twenty-first century poses new challenges, however, and if we're to credibly build up the Arctic to a new standard, finding reliable and effective sources of electricity for its cities will be key above all.

The thing with diesel generators is that they tend to drink their fuel fairly fast when you're powering a city with them. I wasn't able to find an exact breakdown of how many megawatts Iqaluit's generators can put out, individually or in tandem, so I'm fudging it a bit. My numbers are coming from the approximate diesel fuel consumption chart at Diesel Service and Supply Inc., and though my suppositions may be way off, I'd like to think they're at least in the ballpark.

So, for the purposes of argument, let's assume that Iqaluit's four diesel generators are each capable of generating two megawatts of power, and that they're always operating at half load. At this rate, each generator consumes 273.3 liters of fuel per hour. Running twenty-four hours, as they very well might during winter months when the night lasts for twenty hours, they would burn 26,236.6 liters per day, and 183,647 liters per week.

Iqaluit is an expensive place to live in because so much has to be imported. Expensive enough, I say, without having to ship up tens of thousands of liters of diesel fuel every week just to make sure the lights stay on. If Ottawa is looking to build a new Arctic for the twenty-first century, I think they should look at twenty-first century solutions like nuclear battery power.

From the first time I heard of it, I was fascinated by the concept of the Toshiba 4S, effectively a miniaturized nuclear reactor optimized for situations just like Iqaluit's, needing only limited staffing, capable of generating 10 megawatts of power, and theoretically capable of going thirty years between fuelings. Toshiba is already working to use it at the proposed Galena Nuclear Power Plant in Galena, Alaska, a central Alaskan community far removed from the state's grid.

Providing for Iqaluit's energy needs with such a reactor would, I think, be a significant and appropriate investment in the future of Canada's Arctic. It would clean the local air and provide constant, reliable, emission-free electricity. I know that the current government has little interest in environmental issues, given its actions, but this sort of initiative could strike a blow for the environment while simultaneously investing in Nunavut's future.

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