Turning waste into energy in the North
POLAR testing arctic performance of clean energy technologies

Turning waste into energy in the North
POLAR employees Spencer Klengenberg (left) and Brian Vandenbrink check one of the “smart meters” that record electricity use patterns in Cambridge Bay.

By John Bennett

December 9, 2019

Clean energy research is a priority at the Canadian High Arctic Research Station (CHARS) campus – because it’s a priority for Arctic communities.

Thawing permafrost, less predictable weather and ice conditions, and changes in vegetation and wildlife are among the climate change effects communities across Arctic now face every day. To improve understanding of how environments are changing, and speed development of adaptation plans, many of those communities are combining their own environmental expertise with the expertise of researchers from universities, research institutes, and governments. And, well aware of their own carbon footprint – most arctic communities rely on diesel-powered generators for electricity and oil to heat their homes – they’re keen on changing the ways they produce and use energy.

At the CHARS campus in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, researchers from Polar Knowledge Canada (POLAR), the Government of Canada agency that operates the facility, are exploring new technologies that could help Arctic communities reduce their use of fossil fuels.

“Clean energy technologies are generally designed for use in the south,” says Rob Cooke, who heads POLAR’s clean energy program. “Often they don’t perform well in the extreme cold, high winds, and long dark winters that are just part of life in the Arctic. We’re working with partners to test some of those technologies in a controlled environment, and iron out some of the problems.”

POLAR has evaluated several systems that produce clean energy while addressing another challenge northern communities face: reducing the environmental impact of household waste and wastewater. POLAR helped test the Arctic reliability of the Terragon Micro Automated Gasification System (MAGS), which uses high temperature incineration to convert household waste into heat as well as syngas (synthetic natural gas), which could be used to generate electricity. Cooke and POLAR colleagues also accompanied Cambridge Bay municipal officials to Utqiagvik, Alaska, to assess another incineration system used there, and its potential to produce heat and syngas from garbage in Cambridge Bay and other Canadian arctic communities.

In collaboration with the National Research Council (NRC), POLAR is also testing a Bioelectrochemical Anaerobic Sewage Treatment (BeAST) reactor, which can produce heat, and potentially bio-fuel, from sewage. “The long-term goal,” says Cooke, “is to allow for cleaner wastewater going into sewage lagoons whilst generating energy as a byproduct.”

POLAR is also working with NRC to evaluate the arctic performance of heat and energy recovery ventilators, which improve the air quality in a house by providing a continuous supply of fresh air, at the same time minimizing heat and energy losses. These devices are being tested at the CHARS campus and in several houses in Cambridge Bay.

With Natural Resources Canada, POLAR researchers are looking at the way remote communities use energy – the patterns of greatest and least demand, for instance – to find out how best to integrate clean energy in local power grids, and reduce communities’ dependence on the polluting and expensive diesel-powered generators. They’ve installed “smart meters”, which monitor and record energy use, in ten Cambridge Bay buildings. They are also monitoring wind speeds and hours of sunlight, information that will be needed to develop wind and solar energy projects in the community and at the CHARS campus.

The campus, and POLAR’s emphasis on working with northern communities on research priorities they have identified, are key to the success of all this research and its eventual application. “With its location right in an Inuit community and its sophisticated laboratories and other equipment,” says Cooke, “the CHARS campus has huge potential to assist in clean energy development. And that’s a priority for POLAR – because it’s something the communities want.”

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