August 19, 2009 / 10:45 PM / 9 years ago

Outage accents Canada's Arctic electricity woes

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.

Power outages often happen in the dead of winter, when the temperature routinely dips below -30 Celsius (-22 Fahrenheit), posing a major safety risk, said the official who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak on the record.

Earlier this month, a plant in the hamlet of Grise Fiord, which is just 1,500 km (935 miles) from the North Pole, had to be shut down for more than a day after it was flooded by melting glacier water, despite workers’ desperate attempts to block the inflow with plywood.

Prime Minister Harper has said the federal government is very aware of the need to address the tough economic and social conditions in the Far North, and has pledged that a recently announced economic development agency for the Far North would be headquartered in Iqaluit.

Most residents of Iqaluit, a town of about 7,250 people, took the morning’s power outage in stride with many using it to take a cigarette break outside and chat with neighbors and co-workers. The shutdown did not affect Harpers visit.

By afternoon the four generators in the brick building overlooking Iqaluit were running noisily away and officials were trying to figure out what caused the system failure and how much it would take to repair.

$1=$1.09 Canadian

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