Canadian Consulting Engineer

Decarbonizing remote communities

May 31, 2024
By Peter Saunders

The potential in Canada is significant.

Haida Nation solar farm

Photo courtesy Hedgehog Technologies.

Through a combination of tax credits, infrastructure funding and carbon pricing, the federal government is incentivizing communities across the country to switch away from traditional hydrocarbons to emissions-free and/or renewable energy sources. This switch, which can help wean residential, commercial and industrial facilities off of increasingly costly diesel and natural gas, is also intended to help meet goals relating to First Nations prosperity, equity and business development.

In April, Canadian Consulting Engineer gathered industry experts to speak to the scale of such opportunities, the progress made so far and the current reality on the ground. The resulting virtual summit was sponsored by Rheem, CIMA+ and Reliable Controls.

Starting with the end in mind

Michael Wrinch, president and CEO of Vancouver-headquartered Hedgehog Technologies, an electromechanical engineering firm with offices in Burnaby, B.C., and Calgary, started the event off with his keynote presentation on past, current and future efforts to decarbonize remote communities.

Pulling from his 20-plus years’ experience working in remote communities and with renewable energy, he emphasized the need for engineers to start such projects with the end in mind, collaborate with locals on logistics (which can be particularly challenging in isolated regions), consider all uses of energy (including heating, transportation and electrical utilities) and ensure the process of consultation and engagement is continual.

“If you want your project to still be in operation 50 years from now, you need to work back to today to determine what types of training, support, operations and maintenance (O&M) need to take place in the community for that outcome,” he said.

Wrinch cited input from the Haida Nation with regard to project priorities and requirements:

  • Renewable resources must be used.
  • The technology must be mature.
  • The generating capacity must be significant.
  • The system must be environmentally sustainable.
  • Project life must be more than 20 years.
  • The project must integrate into existing systems.
  • The costs must be funded or achieve quick payback.
  • Operations, ownership and employment must be local.
  • Leadership and community must ‘buy in’ and accept the technology.
  • The timeline must be less than three years.

“Simple is better,” he added.

Setting the stage for a panel discussion to come, Wrinch outlined renewable options from the most mature (hydroelectricity, solar and wind) to those less commonly accessible (biomass, geothermal and tidal).

“The problem is the most popular of these, including run-of-the-river hydro, are intermittent,” he said. “It’s not always sunny or windy and Canada’s experiencing a three-year drought that’s affecting hydro. So, you need battery storage and/or backup diesel generators.”

“Simple is better.” – Michael Wrinch, Hedgehog Technologies

A multifaceted challenge and opportunity

Next, I moderated the panel discussion, which not only touched on a variety of subtopics, but also represented different perspectives.

Kevin Brown, for example, is the energy department manager and climate action co-ordinator for Old Massett Village Council on the north end of Haida Gwaii, B.C., which has relied heavily on diesel consumption. He spoke from an energy management perspective about his community’s decarbonization journey.

“It was a difficult learning curve at the beginning to learn what’s out there,” he said. “The best way to get to net-zero is to partner with those in the know and build capacity and self-reliance in our own communities.”

Having helped create a local utility to oversee decarbonization projects, Brown also cited the significance of provincial and federal funding and programs.

“Those have never been as available as they are today,” he said. “It’s amazing. The electrification of cars and fishing vessels is in the queue, as we work on demand-side management of buildings, homes and primary energy sources. We are installing a 2-MW solar field at our northern airport, followed by another at our southern airport, and we will look at wind turbines.”

“The best way to get to net-zero is to build self-reliance.” – Kevin Brown, Old Massett Village Council

Another panelist, Mark Heyck, brought a unique perspective as the former mayor of Yellowknife and current executive director of Arctic Energy Alliance, a not-for-profit society mandated to help reduce the costs and environmental impacts of energy and utility services in the Northwest Territories through efficiency and renewables.

“One of the first questions I asked when I was elected to city council was why didn’t Yellowknife have a community energy plan?” he said.

Heyck chaired the committee to develop just such a plan. Along the way, a failed geothermal heating initiative taught him the importance of a holistic view of local realities.

“Yellowknife sits on solid bedrock, which is not a great conductor of thermal energy,” he said, “so even at 6,000 ft down, we were only finding temperatures of 30 to 35 C. If you went down that far in Europe, you’d reach 90 C!”

Fortunately, Yellowknife’s community energy plan did achieve stronger success, with biomass, as it led to the widespread adoption of wood pellet-based heating for city facilities.

Speakers for Decarbonizing Remote Communities virtual summit

The virtual summit’s speakers included (top left to right) Michael Wrinch, Jean Blair, Kevin Brown, (bottom left to right) Mark Heyck, Brian Walmark and Nathan Tedford. Photos courtesy respective speakers.

On that note, the next speaker was Jean Blair, director of planning and outreach for Torchlight Bioresources, based in Newburgh, Ont. She too emphasized how biomass is well-suited for heating buildings in the North.

“Biomass boilers are a proven technology, with readily available parts for replacement when needed,” she explained. “Biomass heating companies can work with the community to make sure there are people in place to install, operate and maintain those boilers and there is a fuel supply chain.”

In some communities, the local forestry sector can provide a steady supply of wood chips. For others, including those in the Northwest Territories, wood pellet supply companies have emerged to meet demand.

“A few communities have tried combined heat and power (CHP), but it’s been a really big challenge so far and the technology is not as proven,” said Blair. “Most of the projects that have been successful are heat-only.”

Torchlight maintains a database of biomass heating systems across Canada. During the virtual summit, Blair showed there are 647 systems in place, representing an installed capacity of 481 MWh.

While biomass has proven better at heating buildings in the North than solar power, that’s not to say there isn’t an important role for photovoltaic (PV) panels in remote communities. Brian Walmark, decarbonization advisor for Ontario’s Fort Severn First Nation community, worked with Wrinch’s Hedgehog Technologies to develop a solar array in response to a local risk.

“There are polar bear denning sites along the Severn River,” he explained. “If there were even a small diesel spill, it could wipe out the polar bears, which are important to the community. So, they decided to displace diesel-generated power with an alternative, which led to commissioning Hedgehog to help make that transition.”

Community members were trained in solar power, so a few would become the project’s champions and leaders. As a result, they have been able to take one of their diesel generator sets off-line and are now looking at scaling up their solar energy system.

“Their intention is to displace as much diesel as possible,” Walmark said.

“SMRs emulate a lot of the same characteristics as diesel generators.” – Nathan Tedford, Hatch

While Fort Severn looks to scale up solar, another type of energy is being scaled down for future applications—nuclear, in the form of small modular reactors (SMRs), which are currently in development to output anywhere from 1 to 300 MWe per unit. Nathan Tedford, Hatch’s director of nuclear technologies in Port Hope, Ont., addressed this concept as the virtual summit’s final panelist.

“Diesel generators were deployed as a primary power source in remote areas because they’re very flexible,” he pointed out. “Nuclear emulates a lot of the same characteristics: it can provide baseload power, you can put it just about anywhere and it can supply both heat and electricity. And unlike a diesel generator, an SMR will only need to be refuelled every three to five years.”

While Tedford predicted SMRs will be cost-competitive with diesel for remote sites, he noted they will require high usage and won’t be cost-effective for backup generation. With this in mind, a hybrid energy system could, for example, see an SMR complemented by wind and hydrogen for backup and redundancy purposes.

Remote and off-grid applications for SMRs are now being explored in Ontario and Saskatchewan. The implications for the future are yet to be seen, but the potential to bring non-emitting baseload power to areas where it was previously not possible is certainly worthy of engineers’ notice.

To view full video recordings of the virtual summit, including Q&A with those who viewed it live, visit


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