Outage accents Canada's Arctic electricity woes

Wed Aug 19, 2009 6:41pm EDT
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By Allan Dowd

IQALUIT, Nunavut (Reuters) - On a day when Canada's prime minister was touring the country's Far North to promote national sovereignty and economic development in the vast region, the town he was staying in got a blunt reminder of the need to upgrade its creaky infrastructure.

The power went out across Iqaluit for about two hours on Wednesday, just after Stephen Harper and other top federal politicians had left the small community on Baffin Island to tour a military training exercise in the area.

Workers at Iqaluit's aging main diesel-powered generating station took the facility off line after discovering a problem in one of its systems, a move the utility said was prompted by safety concerns and the need to avoid further problems.

An official at Qulliq Energy Corp said it was rare for the territorial capital to entirely lose power, but it was a reminder of the need for Nunavut's public power company to upgrade the 27 generating stations that serve Nunavut's small, far-flung communities.

The utility would have to fund any upgrades by using ratepayer- or territorial-supported debt, but electricity rates are already very high in a region that has a higher poverty rate than the rest of Canada, Qulliq officials said.

"If Canada is serious about sovereignty, and power being one of the essential services, something is going to have to be done about that," Vice-President Jamie Flaherty told reporters after a tour of the plant.

Each community is served by its own generating station, with no backup grid to support them during failure. Because the communities are so isolated -- Nunavut is almost as large as Alaska and Texas combined -- building such a grid would be prohibitively expensive, Flaherty said.

An official with the territorial government said Nunavut has no capital spending planned to replace or add generating capacity, but the outage was a timely reminder of its calls for for more infrastructure aid from Ottawa.   Continued...