There are nearly 300 off-grid communities in Canada and this province has more of them than any other province or territory in Canada. I’ve been discovering that a number of individuals and organizations are keen to change this statistic and one of them is the Clean Technology Community Gateway (CTCG), which is chaired by UNBC Chancellor, John MacDonald. CTCG is a small organization that is bringing public and private sector organizations together to suggest energy solutions for rural and remote communities. It’s also stimulating discussion through the publication of reports. The latest – The Remote Frontier – is a good guide for companies contemplating deployment of technologies to rural places. I met the publication’s author – Alia Lamadaar – many metres above the street in downtown Vancouver recently. I always find it a bit odd talking about rural and northern communities from the heart of metropolitan cities, but Alia’s report provides an excellent overview of the current situation in rural communities. Her perspective is valuable and led to my request that she provide the “guest blog post” below.
Alia Lamaadar, COO of the CleanTech Community Gateway, a Vancouver-based organization assisting rural communities with renewable energy system deployment.
The Abundance Conundrum – by Alia Lamaadar
“Dr. John Macdonald once said that, “in BC, all renewable energy sources known to man are present, and they’re present here in abundance…[BC] could become a global renewable energy centre. All we really need is the will to do it.” Described as the “father of high-tech in BC,” Macdonald is a man who knows a thing or two about opportunity and innovation. But, given the work that I do for the Clean Technology Community Gateway (CTCG), helping remote communities across Canada to benefit from renewable energy, I’m acutely aware that when it comes to abundance, there is a difference between availability and accessibility. While BC’s availability of renewable energy resources could be described as an embarrassment of riches, a much smaller proportion of these resources are reasonably accessible given current geographic, technical, economic and environmental limitations.
Similar to BC, Iceland has an abundance of resources with the potential to vastly exceed their own energy needs. The larger question posed by resource abundance is: if a region has an overabundance of a globally coveted product, should it export it or keep it for its own use?
Export to Market
The most frequently considered development pathway when evaluating resources in BC is that of transporting the power to market either for local consumption or export—in the case of electricity this is usually accomplished through connection to the central power grid. When considering export to foreign markets, market forces typically dictate that suppliers will choose to export their commodity to those markets where they can fetch the highest price—the result being increased domestic prices as supply leaves the country. Eager to reach the better paying customers of Europe, Iceland’s power company has conducted extensive research into the possibility of a massive submarine interconnector to plug Iceland into Europe’s electricity grid. The proposed path for the cable would ultimately reach continental Europe, nearly 2000 kilometers away. While offering higher export revenues and the potential to rely on continental energy supplies as emergency backup, the idea has not been universally well received: the cable has been projected to cost more than $2 billion and disparaging comparisons have been made equating Iceland to an ice-covered version of Middle Eastern nations addicted to easy money from energy exports.
As part of its Integrated Resource Plan, the Clean Energy Act directs BC Hydro to study the potential to acquire electricity for the purpose of export. To date, BC Hydro’s analysis has shown that market conditions are not conducive to selling clean electricity into export markets. BC Hydro has noted that made-in-BC power faces relative disadvantages, including longer distances to market and challenging terrain. “Further, the U.S. tax credits for renewable energy, decreased interest in advancing greenhouse gas emissions regulations, and low natural gas prices create an unfavourable environment for made-in-BC power.”
Stranded resources face even more severe technical and economic realities. As an example, Haida Gwaii, an archipelago of remote communities off of BC’s Northwest Coast, is gifted with an abundance of renewable resources. An undersea transmission line to the mainland grid of the required length and voltage required could cost in the range of hundreds of millions of dollars for a distance of under 200 kilometers.
Local Use & Place-Based Industry
BC has approximately 80 remote communities scattered across the province and largely reliant on dirty and expensive diesel power generation. A persuasive business case can often be made in favour of distributed generation renewable energy to meet their heat and power needs. In the case of Iceland, the country has relied quite extensively on the use of its vast geothermal and hydro resources to meet local demand. Currently 95 percent of Iceland is heated with volcanic hot water and 100 percent of electricity production comes from renewable sources.
Here in BC, the province’s electricity demand is expected to increase by about 50 per cent over the next 20 years. In particular, forecasted new demand from the liquefied natural gas (LNG) industry requires close attention, as new LNG demand will arrive in substantial segments, versus growing slowly or incrementally over time. Given that much of the projected industry expansion from LNG and mining will also occur in areas proximal to both remote communities and stranded resources, an obvious opportunity exists to address industry demand, add resiliency to remote community power supply, and access BC’s abundant stranded renewables.
I do not believe that the option of sustainable place-based industry has been given the robust consideration that it is due in BC. Place-based industry, specifically the development of stranded renewable energy resources for local industry use, could encourage the pairing of the needs of extractive industries (e.g. mining, oil and gas) with the utilisation of stranded renewable resources. Much has been written recently about the burgeoning and seemingly unlikely relationship between the extractives and renewables sectors (see here and here).
This has certainly been the case in Iceland where the cheap, 100 percent renewable power has attracted large energy end-users. Invest in Iceland Director Thordur Hilmarsson has astutely noted that, “We already do export the power. We export it through the products that are created by energy-dependent industries.” These products include aluminum from Alcoa, fish from Stolt Sea Farm and silicon metal from Globe Specialty Metals. While exact industrial energy prices in Iceland are not disclosed, a 20-year contract likely wholesales for $0.04 per kWh.
Invest in Iceland is also actively pursuing sustainable innovators in industries including fish farms, industrial-scale greenhouses and large data centers. Countries like Norway and Iceland are competing to become European hubs for environmentally sustainable data centres that rely on naturally cold climates to cool the facilities and clean power for electricity. By emphasising place-based industry rather than power export, Iceland benefits from low residential energy costs, increased jobs and a vastly improved commercial tax base. BC seems particularly well poised to access the US market for affordable and sustainable data centres, considering its proximity, cool climate, and low energy prices.
I’d like to see a paradigm shift in the way that the province envisions our abundant resources. With an eye for innovation and long-term planning I think that there is more than just a dollar value to be extracted from stranded resources. Stranded resources represent the birthright and legacy of First Nations, the jobs of the future, the inherent beauty of the province, the autonomy of the region, and the geopolitical security of the nation. Let’s not confuse abundance with access, or consumption with benefit.”
Alia Lamaadar is the Chief Operating Officer, of the CleanTech Community Gateway (CTCG), a non-profit organization based in Vancouver, BC. CTCG is engaging with rural and remote communities across Canada, to assist them in achieving their goals through innovative clean technologies. By empowering remote communities to deploy clean technology projects, CTCG hopes to not only improve their standard of living and increase the opportunities available to them, but also to elevate the profile and expertise of Canada’s cleantech industry. Find out more through their LinkedIn Group.