Renewable heat and power spreading across NWT

Posted 2013-11-25
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As fuel and electricity prices in NWT communities march ever upwards and Northerners become more energy conscious, a move to renewable sources of heat and power is spreading across the Northwest Territories.

The Arctic Energy Alliance (AEA), based in Yellowknife, and its four regional offices are playing an instrumental role in shifting attitudes and bringing renewable energy technologies such as wood pellet heating and solar power into NWT homes and communities.

“We’ve focused on tangible, on-the-ground outcomes. So to that end we’ve emphasized getting into communities and partnering with communities to get things done,” says AEA Executive Director Louie Azzolini.

Azzolini points out that the AEA’s main office in Yellowknife does not decide which program runs in which community. “It’s not a top-down, Yellowknife centric model where we say, ‘These are the programs that we are going to run for you.’

Instead, the AEA collaborates with NWT communities on projects that are driven by local leaders, businesses, and residents who identify a need and seek AEA’s help as a partner in making solutions happen.

The outcome of this work, Azzolini predicts, is that someday soon renewable or alternative energy sources will achieve mainstream status. Instead of being considered fringe technology, they will be just one of many choices available to homebuyers and builders – right alongside the traditional oil-burning home furnace.

Azzolini says the day will come when an NWT resident can go to a homebuilder and receive a suite of options for energy production from which to pick and choose.

 “Solar, wind, and biomass (wood, wood chips, wood pellets) will become as socially and culturally accepted as burning diesel,” says Azzolini. “They won’t be viewed as alternative sources of power – they will just be a normal part of the energy mix.”

“So, when you go to buy a home, the builder will ask if you want a home with a furnace – or perhaps a home with half a furnace, a wood pellet stove, a small wood stove and solar panel hook-ups ready to go in case you decide to add solar power in the future.”

Azzolini has no doubts the shift to renewable sources of power and heat will come and he gives the example of the change from traditional film photography to digital cameras.

There will be a wholesale change with regard to renewable energy, predicts Azzolini, just as there was with digital photography. So, AEA’s job is to make that “tipping point” happen as soon as possible.

A key tool in AEA’s renewable energy toolbox in the campaign to speed up that “tipping point,” is its on-the-ground presence across the Northwest Territories in the form of the four regional offices staffed by local people.

AEA’s main office in Yellowknife first opened its doors in 1997 with a Vision that “NWT Society will become a global leader in clean, efficient, sustainable energy practices."  The Beaufort Delta Regional Office in Inuvik was opened in 2009, followed by the Sahtu Regional Office in Norman Wells in 2010. The Dehcho Regional Office in Fort Simpson and the Tlicho Regional Office in Whati opened in 2011.

Arctic Energy Alliance’s Regional Energy Project Coordinators who work in these communities are (from North to South):  Donald Andre in Inuvik, Wayne Lennie in Norman Wells, Sonny Zoe in Whati, and Teresa Chilkowich in Fort Simpson.

Wayne Lennie joined the AEA team in October 2011 and supports the communities of Norman Wells, Deline, Tulita, Fort Good Hope and Colville Lake.  He shares Azzolini’s optimism about the future: change will come – but it will take time and effort.

“I would like to see more pellet and energy efficient wood stoves installed as well as solar projects.  I’m hopeful more will come. It will just take time – but we’ll keep plugging away,” says Lennie.

Lennie says his main task as AEA’s Sahtu Regional Energy Project Coordinator is “…To get our message out. To let the people in the region know that there are alternatives to burning oil and diesel for heat and power – and that we can keep their energy costs down. For example, people can cut their heating bill in half by heating with wood pellets which are half the cost of oil.”

Lennie says it’s important for AEA to have regional offices because those employees have local knowledge and people in the regions are much more comfortable dealing with someone they know.

The feedback to the opening of a Sahtu regional office has been “… all good,” says Lennie. “It’s just a lot easier for people to come into our office and, for example, fill out an application for an Energy Efficiency Incentive Program rebate for a new appliance and have me send it off to Yellowknife.”

“And I get a lot of people who just walk in looking for information. They can’t just go to Yellowknife and they might not be comfortable calling and asking questions – but they know I’m here and that they can just walk in, sit down, and we can talk. No appointments are necessary and there’s no rush – people like that approach.”

Azzolini’s confidence about the future of renewable technologies to produce power and heat in the North is based on the actual achievements that Lennie and the other Regional Energy Project Coordinators have achieved in their communities – including a number of successes.

Azzolini says, for example, the AEA’s Beaufort Delta regional office worked with colleagues in the Yellowknife office to run a very successful wood pellet stove installation project in the Town of Inuvik in in the fall of 2012. This project included a training component that saw local people trained by a WETT certified instructor, in a 10-day training session coordinated by the AEA. The training concluded with a practicum where the trainees installed a number of wood and wood pellet stoves in Inuvik.

This model proved so successful that the AEA partnered with the Tlicho Government to provide Wood Energy Technology Transfer (WETT) training for local residents in Behchoko and Edzo who then installed energy efficient woodstoves in those communities. This was followed in the spring of 2013 with a wood stove installation project in Whati for community elders. The installers were the graduates of the WETT training that took place in Behchoko earlier in the year.

“Once the decision was made to go ahead with the Whati installation project, it was completed in two months – and not only was it done, it was done really, really well.  In fact, it was so successful that the Tlicho Regional Energy Project Coordinator started getting calls from other communities in the region asking ‘When is it coming here?’ ”

The AEA has also expanded this train-and-installation model into solar technology and recently held a Solar Photovoltaic (PV) Design and Installation Workshop in Inuvik that also included a training component.  Azzolini says the AEA hopes to repeat the program each year in a different NWT community.

Another recent example of partnering on energy projects is the AEA’s work with the Inuvialuit Development Corporation to study the possibility of converting the Hamlet of Tuktoyaktuk to a community that generates its heat with wood pellets.

Other projects that the Regional Energy Project Coordinators are currently involved with include working with the NWT Housing Corporation to install biomass systems throughout the NWT.

“We developed a system that works using our technical resources in tandem with our regional people. It’s foolhardy to think that you can deliver a project in the far fields of the NWT without actually having someone local on the ground because you don’t know what’s actually happening and you can’t respond to problems,” says Azzolini.

Other future projects include encouraging northern households to switch their electric hot water heaters for fuel fired heaters, and working with the Government of Nunavut’s Energy Secretariat to assist with energy efficiency and work place energy programs in our sister territory. 

Where will all these efforts lead?

Azzolini sees an NWT future with increased use of biomass (wood, wood chips, wood pellets), increased use of renewable energy sources, lower energy costs, increased energy security, increased local capacity (such as the ability to fix and install wood stoves), increased local employment, and possibly increased local manufacturing.

“With the incredibly creative people we have in the NWT, who’s to say they won’t design and develop their own woodstove?”

“One thing leads to another once you start a stone rolling down the hill, you never what’s going to happen.  So the comparatively small things that we are doing now will hopefully provide energy for other positive things to happen.”

“My hope is that the AEA can help to move markets, consumers, and communities to achieve success with renewable energy.  Everyone is at a different place on the continuum, so we’ll continue to meet them where they’re at – and help them get to where they want to be,” says Azzolini.

Along the way, the AEA’s Regional Energy Project Coordinators will be on the ground in communities throughout the Northwest Territories making a very real difference in the lives of Northerners.