Burning one litre of diesel fuel produces about 2.7 kilograms of carbon dioxide. So, for example, Grise Fiord (Ausuittuq), a community of 150 located on the southern shore of Ellesmere Island, in Nunavut, is dependent on burning diesel to provide heat and power to its citizens. And that means it produces more than 2,700 tonnes of greenhouse gases annually.

Currently, there are more than 80 remote northern communities across Canada that depend on diesel fuel for electricity and heat through cold winters. Together they produce hundreds of thousands of tonnes of carbon dioxide each year.

Reliance on diesel is not only taxing on the ecosystem, it’s also costly and difficult to manage as every litre of that fuel must either be trucked up—in the case of communities with road access—shipped in bulk on summer barges to fly-in communities, such as Grise Fiord, or flown in to communities that are not accessible by road or barge, such as Old Crow.

Territorial governments and industries are trying to change this by exploring the potential to integrate renewable energy—things like solar, wind, biomass and hydro—into the stand-alone grids in these remote communities. And they’ve partnered with a team of young researchers, at the Yukon College Yukon Research Centre, to find some answers.

The team—led by Dr. Michael Ross, Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) industrial research chair for colleges in Northern Energy Innovation since 2015—is made up of college and university students and early career professionals in electrical engineering, mechanical engineering and physics. Since January 2017, they have been collaborating on a project under the pan-territorial Northern Energy Innovation program that explores how renewable energy sources can be integrated into northern communities.

“Our number-one goal is to ensure that the power stays on,” said research assistant Spencer Sumanik. “You can’t just hook up a renewable resource and flip a switch because there are so many factors that influence how it will perform … you don’t want to cause a blackout or overload the system.”

Sumanik grew up in Whitehorse and is now pursuing his Masters in Aerospace Engineering at Carleton University. He has been working on the Northern Energy Innovation Project since it began in 2017.

The researchers are performing what they call grid impact studies, which are basically computer models that simulate a full year of ups and downs in an electrical system. These studies look at how much of the community’s energy could be produced from renewable sources while still keeping the grid stable and reliable.

“We provide computer models of what might happen to the system,” Sumanik said. “What happens if the solar plant is disconnected, for example, or if a tree falls on the line?”

Their overall goal is to reduce the need for diesel, not eliminate it entirely.

“Completely coming off diesel is not impossible, but it is very difficult and can be very expensive,” Sumanik explains.

Although much of the work is done in an office, analysing charts and graphs on screens, at its heart this project is about people. To that end, researchers visit the communities, when possible, to talk to citizens and see the generators in person.

“Community and First Nation partnerships and engagement are critical to the project’s success,” said Ross. “It is the communities that will benefit in the long-term from the research and its implementation.”

This project began in 2017, with Old Crow, a fly-in settlement of 300 located above the Arctic Circle in northern Yukon, which currently relies wholly on diesel fuel for power. In partnership with the Vuntut Gwitchin Government (VGG), researchers explored the potential of integrating solar energy into Old Crow’s grid. The team has submitted its report to VGG and it will be made public once final approvals are in place.

This year they are studying options for Grise Fiord and Cape Dorset in Nunavut, and Inuvik in the Northwest Territories. Data from each new community they examine adds to a greater picture of the potential for integrating renewables in the North.

“Last year was a building year—last year we were developing the models and figuring things out,” Sumanik said. “Now, we have that foundation, we have a slightly larger team and we know which questions to ask.”

The researchers plan to eventually have enough data gathered, so they can go into a new community that may be similar to one already modelled, and have recommendations for that community at their fingertips.

“I feel good about doing this job because we’re doing something that can really make a difference,” said Sumanik. “If we can reduce diesel consumption by 200,000 litres, that’s taking away 600,000 kilograms of CO2, and it can be a significant cost savings for the community.”