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Long path away from diesel

Spread out by great distances and no connecting infrastructure, Nunavut is in the difficult position of providing municipal services in isolation.

The hardest to accept is the expensive and unsustainable power created by burning diesel fuel. Add in ageing infrastructure that is difficult and expensive to maintain, and it's no wonder there is a ongoing conversation about moving to a different energy source.

Through the years, we've watched as communities and the territorial government have dabbled in alternative energy – such as solar, wind, and tidal – to minimal effect. Pilot projects come and go, kept at the pilot phase or abandoned altogether.

Every level of government can agree that diesel is too expensive and dirty, yet change is coming only at the lower levels.

Some hamlets have tried to harness the wind in Nunavut, but issues of cost, aesthetics, and potential for damage seem to be downgrading wind power as an alternative. Tidal energy makes sense in Iqaluit, yet we have seen no progress on this.

For those who haven't done the research, it would seem that solar energy is useless in Nunavut due to the shortage of winter sun hours. Yet many communities could benefit from it, and even high Arctic hamlets could benefit from the abundance of sun in the summer. We still use power then, after all.

In Inuvik, NWT – 200 km north of the Arctic Circle – one man installed a $33,000 solar system and it is now generating more power than he uses.

Nunavut hamlets are experimenting with the technology to offset power at hamlet offices and recreation facilities, as well as to power community freezers.

And yet the Government of Nunavut is behind its own timeline to implement net metering, which allows homeowners and businesses to put surplus energy from solar panels or wind turbines into the grid and get the energy back later.

Now we hear that geothermal, which Iceland has used to heat and power its homes so effectively that it is now the authority on the technology, is being investigated in Nunavut. Even without Iceland's volcanoes, many parts of Canada have had success with the technology, and we need to determine its potential here. We're told that despite its up-front cost, it may be cheaper long-term than diesel. There's no doubt it would be more sustainable.

Yet there's no incentive comparable to the Nunavut Downpayment Assistance Program or Home Repair Program – each of which offer partial forgiveable loans – for homeowners to put up the money for alternative energy infrastructure. With homeowners making up only 20 per cent of residents and those in social housing another 50 per cent, this leaves a great majority of Nunavut residents unable to make a change.

These investments must be made now to move us away from diesel. Solar is reaching a tipping point where the average lifetime cost per kWh is expected to make it the most affordable technology in many regions by 2020. Geothermal heat and power could be a game-changer.

But the territory doesn't have the money to make this progress. It's time for Ottawa to step up, especially in light of its carbon pricing plan, which will increase the cost of every activity requiring fossil fuel, which is basically every activity in Nunavut.

Ottawa must provide the financial backing to build the infrastructure needed to develop ways to move away from fossil fuel. Grassroots solutions are a start, but the feds need to spread the green to make a real environmental difference.