Challenges Facing Renewable Energy in Northern Canada

In the remote northern territories of Canada, a legacy of off-grid systems and limited infrastructure makes energy transition difficult.

There is seemingly a dichotomous rhetoric between environmental progress and economic development. Historically, there has never been a substantial increase in welfare or GDP that has not been coupled with an increase in carbon emissions per capita. However, increasing economic competitiveness of green technologies like solar panels has opened up the possibility of sustainable development. This blog post aims to summarize some of the barriers to the widespread adoption of clean energy in Canada’s rural northern communities, which have historically been more dependent on cheap fossil fuels than the rest of Canada.

Overcoming a Legacy of Diesel

Canada’s northern regions have been dependent on diesel for as long as energy has been available in the area. Historically plagued by remoteness, these territories consist of predominantly off-grid systems powered by diesel fuel and lack any significant energy infrastructure projects. For context, the population density in Nunavut (one of Canada’s three northern territories) is 0.017 people per square kilometer as of the 2011 census.

Any effort to increase renewables adoption in the North will inevitably revolve around breaking this harmful dependence on diesel. Whether in the form of subsidies for renewable energy projects, or funding for the research and development of resources such as a technical guide on renewable integration into remote off-grid systems. Canada’s federal government will have to dedicate significant resources to make clean energy a reality. Simply put, the market has failed Canada’s remote northern communities. 

Intermittency on an Extreme Level

While competitive solutions to short-term intermittency have begun popping up all over the world, there still lacks a persistent solution to long-term intermittency. This is particularly harmful to the widespread adoption of renewables in the Arctic region, which can face months of darkness at a time. Government policies and programs should continue to incentivize the research and development of long-term storage solutions outside of traditional but expensive lithium technologies, and aim to deploy diverse portfolios of cleaner energy solutions such as wind and geothermal to overcome intermittency gaps.

Lack of Indigenous Perspectives

Canada’s three northern territories have populations that are composed of anywhere from 20 to 85 percent aboriginal peoples. Considering the unique political, economic, and social conditions in which indigenous communities are governed, it is important that Canadian policies and incentive programs take into consideration traditional knowledge and local implementation capabilities. While there are efforts to better integrate indigenous perspectives, there is still unarguably lots of work to be done if we are to end northern Canada’s dependency on diesel. 

Looking into the Future

While switching to renewables is inevitably a requirement of creating a sustainable future in Canada’s northern communities, it is also important to not undermine short-term solutions that may be more immediately applicable, such as improving energy efficiency in buildings. However, there is a lot to be hopeful about. There have been recent increases in independent power producers and indigenous-owned renewable assets that can be bolstered with more government incentives. Furthermore, policy can help solve the complicated procurement funding streams for subsidized diesel that currently makes it difficult for clean energy companies to structure similarly compelling financial incentive systems. These are all issues and opportunities that policy makers ought to be thinking about if Canada’s northern and remote communities are to achieve environmental and economic sustainability.

Brandon Nguyen

Undergraduate Seminar Fellow
Brandon Nguyen is an undergraduate student studying economics and political science at the Wharton School and the College of Arts and Sciences. Nguyen was also a Kleinman Center 2020 Undergraduate Student Fellow.