Signs of a changing climate tend to be illustrated with the most visible elements one can imagine: malnourished and starving white bears, dirty glaciers shrinking to reveal layers of sand and rock, tales of Northern communities uncertain whether the ice roads they depend on to import the goods needed to survive will endure the coming winter warmth. And much as the impacts of climate change will be felt disproportionately in poorer communities, the earth’s natural declination ensures that the impacts will be concentrated at the poles as well. Therefore, there is a semblance of cruel irony that accompanies the realization that the primary strategies for reducing energy poverty in Northern communities involve installing gas and diesel generators to provide communities with the energy needed to keep the lights on. The areas where development is most sought is also those where it will be most damning – watching it unfold in slow-motion brings with it a Kafkaesque shiver.
Understanding that the needs of Northern communities are often heavily reliant upon balancing complex environmental, social and economic considerations, a growing area of study up to this point has been focused upon installing renewable energy systems in Arctic communities. The current outlook shows that the majority of communities use diesel generators, primarily for their reliability to provide both heating and lighting in days of -40 degrees C and utter darkness. Well intentioned governments have long subsidized the cost of diesel fuel for small-scale power plants and generators to ensure communities stricken by systemic problems can at least keep their lights on and houses heated. Such subsidies are determined through economic analyses, which outline the cost of operating and potentially replacing generators, as well as the costs of fuel itself.
When examining the economics of renewable energy systems, primarily wind energy, the same methodology is applied. This fails to account for three key factors: the reduction in operating hours for generators that renewable power can offset, thereby reducing the lifespans of both, the societal costs of localized air pollution, and the role of localized utility companies who may not possess the technical capacity to manage embedded variable energy systems. If these factors are internalized and the real cost of diesel becomes reflected, the cost of subsidization to wind systems would reach something close to the break-even quotient needed to justify project investment.
Wind energy offers no perfect solutions – turbines are only operational to -40 C, provide variable power that requires fossil fuels still be used for non-generating periods, and can quite simply cost more than a community can afford in a grid system. The law of diminishing costs with economies of scale also apply less in the North, where shipping costs for each individual component remain high regardless of scale and individual communities cannot justify purchasing at large enough volumes given a lack of localized demand. Solar equally faces problems – namely of being inactive in winter and over-generating in summer, leading to a difficult energy source to manage without the use of long-term storage technologies, which at this point are not deployable in Arctic climates.
However, the benefits of renewable energy remain the same as elsewhere – namely lower operating costs, emissions-free electricity and the potential to generate revenue for community members while reducing reliance on centralized systems. And overcoming these barriers can be done through a combination of regulatory, subsidization and pricing programs targeting key barriers. First, local hydro companies should be encouraged to work with Northern communities directly to develop clean power projects. Second, governments should design strategies to increase uptake of renewables within communities where it makes sense to do so. Finally, utilities should be encouraged to take the lead by developing programs to subsidize community-level uptake, driving demand forward by supporting renewable energy in the same way fossil fuel energy is supported at multiple institutional levels.
Saving the bears and repairing glaciers is the work that we may be too late to begin just now. But ensuring that the people whose homes will be most impacted by a changing climate are not some of the ones actively contributing to it in meeting their basic needs – that just makes sense.