Research team studies how to bring sustainable energy to remote northern sites

WHITEHORSE—How can a solar energy system remain stable in a place where the sun shines all day during the summer and barely rises above the horizon in winter? This is the question a team of young researchers at Yukon College have sought to answer over the past few months.

The team—led by Michael Ross, Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) Industrial Research Chair in Northern Energy Innovation—is made up of nine students and early career professionals in electrical engineering, mechanical engineering and physics. Since January they have been collaborating on a Northern Energy Innovation Project that explores how renewable energy sources can be integrated into northern communities.

“We’re working on models to determine how to produce enough energy without overloading the grid,” said engineer-in-training Jason Zrum, one of four researchers working on the project who were born and raised in the Yukon. “Either having too little or too much energy can damage equipment or cause an unplanned power outage—which can be devastating for the community, especially in winter.”

The first site they’re studying is Old Crow, a fly-in settlement of 300 located above the Arctic Circle in northern Yukon. The community is not connected to the Yukon electrical grid and currently relies wholly on diesel fuel for power, but the Vuntut Gwitchin Government would like that to change. In fact, it has been examining the potential of harnessing solar energy for years.

“We’re proud to be involved in this project, and it’s rewarding to see our goal start to come to light,” said William Josie, Director of Natural Resources for Vuntut Gwitchin. “Exploring how to use more renewable energy will benefit our people by making our community more sustainable for future generations.”

The entire project is partially funded by energy industry partners from all three territories, and partially funded by NSERC. This means the researchers can access actual data from industry but still remain independent.

In this phase of the project, ATCO Electric Yukon, which has a mandate to provide safe and reliable power to communities throughout the territory, played a crucial role in modeling the system so all parties benefit from shared knowledge.

“We have been providing power in Old Crow for a long time, and we have always had a great working relationship with the Vuntut Gwitchin Government,” said ATCO Electric Yukon Manager Jay Massie. “Working to develop renewable energy and reduce diesel emissions are shared goals.”

The researchers also gained valuable insight by working closely with the community. In fact, the research team spent time in Old Crow, meeting with residents and touring its energy facility.

“Modeling a system from a computer is one thing but being in the community and having first-hand experience gives us a whole new level of understanding,” said Sara Thompson, YRC Project Enhancement Officer.

The researchers will provide the First Nation with a report in the fall, and then move on to the next phase of the project where they will focus attention on another small community. Each site studied will help the team provide a clearer picture of best practices in renewable energy production in northern Canada. The next proposed site is Sanikiluaq, Nunavut.