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Is territory looking in wrong place for energy solutions?

The Northwest Territories’ biomass industry believes a shift in government thinking can help to solve its looming energy crisis.

The territorial government is set to spend $30 million covering extra diesel costs this winter as low water levels reduce hydro output.

That’s after hosting two recent forums on energy, dubbed ‘charrettes’, in search of longer-term solutions that generate power and save money.

Elaine Carr, the new president of the NWT Biomass Energy Association, says the territory’s approach till now has overlooked huge potential savings to be made in heating.

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“I attended one of the energy charrettes and there is a disproportionate focus on electricity, whereas we are a heating-dominated climate in the NWT,” Carr told Moose FM.

Background: The NWT’s paying your power bill again: this time it’s $30 million

According to figures quoted by Carr, the territory uses about 17 percent of its energy on transportation (i.e. fuel), 11 percent on electricity and 72 percent on space heating.

“I would say, at the charrette, at least 50 percent of the time was spent talking about electricity,” said Carr. “I think electricity is given a disproportionate share of the attention, considering the potential savings on the heating side when it’s such a larger piece of the pie.

“The cost numbers are a little closer [as opposed to the use figures] but you still come out spending more money on heating than on electricity. Somehow, people are much more focused on their electricity bills than their heating bills and the government feels responsible for subsidizing electricity, but not heating use.

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“They do have some subsidies for these things but if they were to allocate the same time, resources and attention as they do for the electricity side, they would probably get a bigger bang for their buck.”

Almost 10 years have passed since the first biomass installation of note at government level in the NWT – at the North Slave Correctional Centre.

Since then, the territorial government and City of Yellowknife have both embraced biomass with a number of installations. The territory is set to establish its own wood pellet mill near Enterprise, which will improve supply to the NWT’s communities.

Read: Northern MP candidates clash over carbon tax, cost of living

“The plan was two steps: build the market and then once you do that, build an industry,” said Michael Miltenberger – the minister responsible for the territory’s power corporation, as well as the NWT’s finance and environment minister – in May this year.

“We’ve spent the last eight years building the market. We’ve encouraged people to get into it, but as a government, we’ve made a very significant investment in converting our own buildings.

“We see biomass as a local, renewable energy source that, if we manage it correctly, could create an economy and help us with our greenhouse gas emissions.”

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Carr believes that reinvesting some of the millions currently being spent to cover diesel costs could grow the biomass industry into a long-term heating solution that pays dividends within a decade.

“With large capital funding, you do tend to get a five to 10-year payback on any investments. Savings in diesel fuel tends to be the biggest piece,” she said.

“I know it’s very complicated for government, but if you put that same money somewhere else? Even putting a pellet stove in each one of these houses could save everyone more money in the long run.

“The NWT is at the forefront. The industry here has gotten to a point that no-one else in Canada really has, and it is definitely growing well. Whether there’s a lot of room for growing faster? That’s all will.”

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