Speaker: Michael Ross

Date: February 13th, 2020

Dr. Michael Ross is the NSERC Industrial Research Chair in Northern Energy Innovation at the Yukon Research Centre, Yukon College. His applied research program addresses the needs of the northern energy industry through academic partnerships with all three colleges in the territories, and through industry-driven direction and support from all four territorial electric power utilities. His research for the program focuses on integrating a high penetration of renewable generation in remote communities, energy storage systems, diesel efficiencies, and demand-side management. Dr. Ross holds a master’s degree and a PhD in Electrical Engineering from McGill University and is a registered Professional Engineer.

Territorial Energy Context

Dr. Ross began his presentation with an introduction to the realities faced by communities and utilities in Canada’s north. He made it clear that it is important to first understand that Canada’s north is very big, perhaps much bigger than we often think. In fact, the geographic centre of Canada is Baker Lake, which is an inland community of Nunavut. Since the north is so big and sparse, the electric power systems in the North are not connected to the North American grid or any neighbouring systems. Instead, the electric power utilities must manage their electricity generation and delivery in isolation, with no import or export capacity with other grid systems. Therefore, when dominant electricity generation systems fail, the utilities have little choice but to bring in liquefied natural gas (LNG) and diesel energy generation. For example, in the Yukon, during the winter hydroelectric electricity generation cannot operate due to freezing temperatures, and thus utilities burn large amounts of LNG and diesel in order to supply electricity demand. In Nunavut the situation is even more difficult: in this Territory all electricity needs are met by imported fossil fuels, and these stand-alone diesel power plants face a variety of issues including fires, elevated costs, and aging infrastructure. The situation faced by utilities in Canada’s north is summarized by Qulliq Energy Corporation (the Nunavut electricity utility company) below:

In a unique geographical location such as Nunavut, where 25 isolated communities are spread out across 1,932,255 square kilometers and experience temperatures below -50 degrees Celsius and wind gusts above 150 kilometers per hour, generating and distributing electricity to our customers often poses significant challenges (Annual Report, 2015-16).

Moving away from this unreliable, costly, and polluting energy system and towards renewable and sustainable energy will be no simple feat in Northern Canada. This energy transition is difficult enough in Southern Canada, where renewable energy intermittency and volatility is often pointed to as a significant barrier. Yet, in the North, renewable energy systems face additional barriers. These additional barriers include freezing temperatures, blade icing, a lack of economies of scale due to the small and dispersed nature of northern communities, a lack of heavy equipment such as cranes, and a limited ability to transport equipment and parts since many communities are fly-in only. Furthermore, in isolated communities, a power outage can be more than an inconvenience, and can lead to much more serious consequences than those in cities or well-populated areas.

The successful operation of renewable energy power systems therefore faces significant barriers. However, the research needed in order to overcome these barriers also faces challenges. Doing research in the North is extremely expensive: up to twenty-five times the cost of doing research in other more accessible regions. Research is not only expensive, but researchers also face historical bias. This bias emerges from the fact that there is a huge amount of research on the North but little of this research has ever actually benefitted the local communities. Thus, the Inuit are skeptical of any new researchers and are not always willing to cooperate and engage with a research project.

Northern Energy Innovation

After reviewing the challenges faced by utilities, communities, and researchers in Northern Canada, Dr. Ross provided an overview of several projects that he has worked on or is working on with Yukon College. He made it clear that this work is done with the motto “In the north, by the north, for the north” in mind. Dr. Ross pointed to a multi-disciplinary approach, of which every aspect must be addressed in order for these projects to be successful. The approach includes addressing the social, technical, environmental, economic, and political (STEEP) aspects of any community energy project. His research focuses on four program areas: integrating renewable energy in remote communities, increasing diesel energy system efficiencies, implementing demand-side management initiatives, and supporting residential and utility partnerships to facilitate the public going off-grid.

Dr. Ross provided an overview of several key projects that he has worked on or is working on in Canada’s North. Some of these were purely research-oriented while others focused on the actual implementation of renewable energy sources. For example, one research-oriented project assessed the technical and economic viability of small-scale distributed energy resources. This was done in response to the utilities in the North fearing the utility death spiral, which is essentially the phenomenon of rising utility rates in response to customers’ self-generation of electricity with some renewable energy technology such as wind or solar, which in turn leads to even more customers moving towards self-generation and thus even higher utility rates and so on. This ‘death spiral’ ultimately leads to the utility being less and less important in the realm of electricity generation and distribution. Another project focused on the implementation of a solar-battery-diesel hybrid plant in Colville Lake, a small community in the Northwest Territories.

Case Study: Old Crow Solar Project

Dr. Ross completed his presentation with an in-depth analysis of one project he has contributed to in the Yukon. Old Crow is a small, remote, fly-in only community in northern Yukon which relied upon diesel power generation for its energy needs. However, this project proposed the implementation of 330 kW of solar photovoltaic along with 200 kWh of battery storage to reduce the community’s reliance upon diesel. A feasibility study showed that solar is a viable option in the community to reduce its diesel consumption due to high levels of sunlight in the summer, reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 267 tonnes each year. The champions of the Old Crow solar project have been the Vunut Gwitch’in First Nations people.

Dr. Ross explained that at first the utility was hesitant about the proposal, since its primary job is to deliver safe and reliable electricity to its customers and the integration of renewable energy technologies poses barriers to this (as discussed above). Therefore, Dr. Ross’ team worked with both the utility and the community to ensure that the concerns of both groups were considered and addressed. One of the primary obstacles to the realization of this project was the need for additional infrastructure. Since utilities are responsible to a utilities board which must approve any utility rate hikes, the utility could not finance the huge costs necessary for the construction of this new infrastructure. Because of this barrier, the new power system was paid for and is operated by a community development corporation in partnership with the utility.

After an analysis of the proposed energy system and addressing all aspects of the STEEP framework discussed above, the Old Crow Solar Project was successfully implemented in 2018. In the end, over 900 kW of solar capacity was installed with 612 kWh of battery storage, displacing almost 200,000 litres of diesel. Dr. Ross stressed that engagement and community support was absolutely integral to the successful implementation of this project, and it will continue to be important in the maintenance phase of this new energy system.


Following Dr. Ross’ presentation, the audience had a variety of questions for him.

Q: Who is funding this research in Canada’s North? The Federal Government? Utilities?

A: The core funding for much of this research comes from utilities and from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC). However, sometimes communities reach out and ask for research work to be done. In this case, often the funding comes from communities themselves.

Q: Solar energy is wonderful for the summer months, but there is no sun in the winter. Has inter-seasonal storage been looked into? What options are there?

A: In Old Crow, this battery and solar power system will sit idle during the winter. It is not meant to be an inter-seasonal energy system or provide inter-seasonal energy storage. This limits the ability of the energy system to displace diesel. However, there is interest in implementing a pumped hydroelectric energy system which could overcome this barrier. This being said, there are obstacles to this energy storage system, such as cost and negative effects on the local ecology.

Q: Are small modular reactors (SMRs) an option in Northern Canada? Are they discussed?

A: The Canadian Nuclear Association (CNA) did do outreach in Iqaluit because the North has been identified as a potential beneficiary of this technology and the communities are interested in getting off of diesel. However, there are a lot of issues with this technology. Firstly, it is not yet here, it will still be at least a decade before this technology can be considered a viable option. Furthermore, even small SMRs are too big for most northern communities, they would provide way more energy than communities currently require. Even if these barriers were overcome, Inuit and Indigenous populations are often averse to nuclear due to environmental concerns.

Q: In the Arctic, are the utilities public or privately owned?

A: It depends. In the Yukon, there are two utilities: ATCO Electric and Yukon Energy Corporation. ATCO is private and the Yukon Energy Corporation is public. Both utilities are interested in looking into renewable energy technology. 

Q: Have micro-combined heat and power plants been discussed in the Arctic? Is this an option?

A: This is a great idea but it’s very expensive and often permafrost or the spatial dispersion of the community means that this isn’t even possible. There are also regulatory constraints to this in some regions. For example, utilities may not be allowed to sell heat.

Q: In your demand-side-management initiatives do you account for community cultural events? For example, the whole community leaving on a hunt for a period of time.

A: Yes, we do account for this. In our projects, we tailor each solution to the needs and peculiarities of each community. This socio-cultural aspect is extremely important and it varies significantly from community to community.

Q: Does the cold not decrease the ability of batteries to hold their charge?

A: Yes, and because of this you need to control the environment around the batteries as much as you can with insulation and thermal controls. This is a concern but there is a lot of work going towards addressing this barrier.

Q: Prior to the October 2019 Federal election, several election platforms discussed the elimination of diesel in the Arctic. What do you think is the biggest barrier to realizing this goal?

A: Making sure that the new renewable energy system works and is reliable. Diesel generators as a source of power have many flaws, such as carbon dioxide emissions and noise, but it is a very effective and reliable source of electricity. Diesel has allowed communities in the North a quality of life that otherwise would not have been possible, and renewable energy sources such as solar and wind simply do not provide the same level of energy reliability. However, it is definitely possible to build a reliable and sustainable energy system in the North, it will simply be expensive.

Precis completed by Silke Popescu, MA Sustainable Energy student.

Event page

Seminar Poster

PDF of Slide Presentation

See the Old Crow Solar Project video here.