Alternative and Renewable Energy in the North: Community-driven Initiatives

By: Kiley Daley – PhD Candidate, Dalhousie University


There is strong global interest in reducing dependence on fossil fuels by increasing use of alternative and renewable energy sources. In the Canadian North, the need to diversify the energy mix is particularly pressing, as per capita energy use in the region is nearly twice the national average due to long, cold winters (SSCEENR, 2015). Additionally, much of the existing energy infrastructure is at capacity and in need of major repair or replacement (Cherniak et al., 2015).

Northern communities are not connected to the large North American grids, therefore most, including all of Nunavut, Nunatsiavut and Nunavik, rely exclusively on independent diesel generators for power (SSCEENR, 2015). Community-scale diesel generation systems can respond quickly to changing demand loads and are very reliable. These are important considerations in Arctic communities where total power loss during mid-winter can quickly lead to building freeze-ups and loss of essential services. However, diesel generation creates significant greenhouse gas emissions, and operating costs are extremely high, as fuel must be shipped to communities via sea lift, truck or sometimes air. Several communities in the western Arctic (9 in Northwest Territories and 16 in Yukon) are also served by hydro power facilities. These facilities were constructed as part of mining operations and are now over 60 years old. Two communities, Norman Wells and Inuvik, Northwest Territories, rely on natural gas (SSCEENR, 2015). Both hydro and natural gas energy systems come with their own sets of advantages and drawbacks. Furthermore, they must be combined with diesel generators for back-up power or to supplement output during peak periods.

Examples of alternative and renewable energy projects

Volatility in diesel fuel prices and a desire for more affordable, autonomous energy supply is further driving alternative energy development in the North (Institute of the North, 2016). A number of emerging technologies are being explored for their applicability in the Arctic through various funding and grant partnerships.

Both solar and wind are viable energy options in Arctic conditions, although they are intermittent sources dependent on weather conditions. Batteries and other storage technologies can be used to collect surplus energy when available, such as during periods of high wind. One potential option to distribute this stored energy is via district heating loops into schools or public buildings (Lockard, 2015).

Some communities have begun incorporating solar and wind projects into their energy supply. The Kluane Wind Farm is an initiative in the Kluane First Nation communities of Burwash Landing and Destruction Bay, Yukon. Three turbines are being installed, and once operational, are projected to generate enough electricity to reduce the communities’ diesel fuel requirements by 25 to 30 percent (Cherniak et al., 2015). The Windmatic turbines being used were selected based on their demonstrated success in remote Alaskan communities.

In the Lutsel K'e, Northwest Territories, a village of 350 people, the territory’s first community-owned power producer has been constructed on a decommissioned tank farm. The Lutsel K’e Solar Farm, an array of solar voltaic panels, will sell power to the Northwest Territories Power Corporation to be distributed on their local grid. It is eventually expected to generate 20 percent of the community’s energy needs (Cherniak et al., 2015). Lutsel K’e chose this energy model because of the opportunity for local ownership, passing over alternative proposals that offered higher short-term financial incentives in favour of having a direct ownership stake in their own energy production.

The Lutsel K’e Solar Farm (Photo: Robert Cooke)
The Lutsel K’e Solar Farm (Photo: Robert Cooke)

Another community-driven energy initiative is the Fort McPherson Biomass Heating Project. Fort McPherson, Northwest Territories is a Gwich’n First Nation community of 900 people, located on the Peel River above the Arctic Circle. They have installed a biomass district heating system that will use wood chips made from locally-harvested willow as a fuel source (Cherniak et al., 2015). Currently, the system is providing heat to the band office as well as generating revenue by selling heat to the local health centre. Significantly, the project aligns with Gwich’in traditional practices and cultural values. The venture has built local capacity and self-reliance, as harvesting and working with wood is an important part of Gwich’n culture (Bennett, 2015).

The Alaska Renewable Energy Conference

Northern energy stakeholders have recognized the need to transition to more renewable sources and technologies. However, they must do so incrementally, in a manner that balances present needs with longer-term strategies. This was one of the underlying themes of the recent Alaska Renewable Energy Conference that was held from April 26th – 28th, 2016 in Fairbanks ( The event, which was attended by representatives from Polar Knowledge Canada and other Canadian organizations, included sessions covering new and ongoing energy projects in Arctic communities. Based on the conference and the examples of “early adopters” highlighted above, when renewable and alternative energy projects are undertaken with earnest community engagement and co-investment they offer great opportunity to decrease northern dependence on imported fossil fuels, while fostering economic development and social benefit in northern communities.

Kiley Daley
Kiley Daley is a PhD Candidate at Dalhousie University in the Centre for Water Resources Studies. His research focuses on water- and sanitation-related public health issues in rural, arctic, and Indigenous communities. Prior to graduate school, Kiley lived in the Canadian North full-time, spending two years in Gjoa Haven and Taloyoak, Nunavut.


Bennett, J. (2015). Renewable energy builds self-reliance in Fort McPherson, N.W.T. Canadian Geographic, The Polar Blog (August 27, 2015). Available from:

Cherniak,D., Dufresne,V., Keyte, L., Mallett, A., Schott, S. (2015). Report on the State of Alternative Energy in the Arctic. Ottawa, ON: School of Public Policy and Administration, Carleton University.

SSCEENR – Standing Senate Committee on Energy, the Environment and Natural Resources. (2015). Powering Canada’s Territories. Available from:

Institute of the North. (2016). Proceedings of the 2015 Arctic Energy Summit: Security and Affordability for a Resilient North. Available from:

Lockard, D. (September, 2015). Integrating Renewables. Presented at the Arctic Energy Summit, Fairbanks, Alaska.

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