Northern voices must shape Arctic shift to greener energy

Photo courtesy of the Senate of Canada

When it comes to infrastructure, Canada’s North is lagging behind the rest of the world.

Focusing on energy infrastructure in comparable regions throughout the circumpolar Arctic, we see countries that have successfully harnessed alternatives, such as nuclear and geothermal energy, to power communities in northern and remote areas.

In stark contrast, all 25 of Nunavut’s communities remain almost entirely reliant on diesel.

Since the Senate Committee on Energy, the Environment and Natural Resources released its 2015 report, Powering Canada’s Territories, there have been many advances in renewable energy infrastructure. Wind turbines can now more reliably withstand Arctic weather conditions; batteries for solar power have advanced in design and accessibility; and small nuclear reactors (SMRs) are increasingly being recognized for their many advantages.

Senator Dennis Patterson. | Photo courtesy of the Senate of Canada

In Nunavut, the Kiggavik deposit in the central region of the territory – the Kivalliq – has the potential to be another Athabasca Basin. One only needs to look at how the primary, secondary and tertiary industries resulting from Cameco’s Cigar Lake and McArthur River mines to know the potential that rich resources and sustainable development can boost the local economy and shape an entire region.

The advantages of SMRs include the fact that they are relatively easy to construct; they are modular and can easily be expanded to fit the growing needs of communities; and they are extremely safe sources of energy. It is also significant that Canada is the world’s fourth-largest uranium producer, accounting for 9% of the total uranium produced globally.

If we want to move forward with a truly “just transition,” then Canada needs to ensure that it is just for northern and remote communities who face multiple barriers to acquire, construct and maintain alternative energy sources. We are limited by geography, weather and capacity – both human and funding-wise.

The government must ensure that any “just transition” legislation includes significant resources and future budgets must include equitable funding, beyond the ad hoc or per capita funding announcements we get too often.

Some funding areas related to “just transition” are obvious. For example, we need to ensure local community members are trained on how to operate and maintain energy equipment. We need to have more federal subsidies to build new energy infrastructure, since the relatively small populations of Arctic communities don’t normally allow our projects to fit into P3 arrangements – or into the Infrastructure Bank model, which doesn’t fund smaller projects with little to no return on investment.

However, some funding needs aren’t so obvious unless you’re a northerner, such as the need for paved airports or for flexible funding models that work with our short shipping season.

All of Nunavut’s communities are fly-in only and without connecting roads. Every Nunavut community is a coastal community. This means that construction materials must be shipped by sealift, which requires long lead times and lots of advance coordination. Despite this reality, funding agreements with Canada often get announced at the start of the fiscal year, but don’t get disbursed until months later – usually past the time we can place sealift orders – and then expire a year later. We need more flexible funding agreements that enable us to work with the sealift schedule.

Smaller cargo can also be flown in by jet. Each region of Nunavut has a central hub community: Cambridge Bay in the west, Rankin Inlet in the central region and Iqaluit in the east. Yet Cambridge Bay still only has a gravel runway and modern jets require a paved runway to land. Many of the older jets outfitted with gravel kits are being retired this year and Cambridge Bay has officially lost its jet service.

These are the type of logistics that we need to ensure are being recognized at the federal level. Too often, programs and policies are developed by someone in Ottawa with little to no knowledge of northern realities – and that has to change.

Canada’s Arctic has the potential to be just as developed as its circumpolar neighbours, but in order to take advantage of the advances in technology that could make us less reliant on diesel, we need Ottawa to understand how best to help us make the transition.

That requires listening to northern voices – and actually acting on our advice.

Senator Dennis Patterson represents Nunavut in the Senate.