Situated above the Arctic Circle and hundreds of kilometers from the nearest road, at the confluence of the Old Crow River and the Porcupine River, sits the community of Old Crow. Home to the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation (VGFN), this small community of 300 people is deeply connected to the land, the water and the animals in their Traditional Territory.

By virtue of its remote location, the community has, for many years, been reliant on diesel generation for power. This began to change when VGG developed a vision that would see the community transition to renewable energy generation: a solar farm installed in Old Crow. Diesel generators turned off. Elders picking berries between rows of solar panels.

While VGG worked towards solar energy in their community, a Power System Impact Study was required to make the vision a reality. Yukon University’s (YukonU) Northern Energy Innovation (NEI) team, led by Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council Industrial Research Chair Dr. Michael Ross, had the specialized knowledge to complete the required technical studies, and in 2017, VGG, YukonU (then Yukon College) and ATCO Electric Yukon entered into a partnership that would see the project come to life.

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The purpose of the Power System Impact Study was to determine how much solar energy could be safely integrated into Old Crow’s energy system without affecting the stability or reliability of power in the community. Project leads Jason Zrum and Spencer Sumanik, both research assistants with NEI at YukonU, performed the study, which included designing the methodologies and system models, and troubleshooting for potential problems and bottlenecks as they went. The NEI team worked very closely with VGG throughout the entire process, ensuring that the study results were meaningful to the community.

Old Crow’s northern environment and unique sunlight attributes were an important consideration during system design. In the northern hemisphere, the sun typically sets towards the south, but in places like Old Crow above the Arctic Circle, the sun does not set and circles the sky throughout the day in the summer, setting towards the north in the spring and fall. As a result, the final system design saw solar panels positioned in a unique back-to-back formation to optimize space, facing east and west to make the most of the community’s summer sunlight, and angled vertically to prevent snow build up.

Along with NEI’s Power System Impact Study, VGG’s partnership with ATCO Electric Yukon allowed for the execution of the newly designed power system, integrating solar energy into the Old Crow grid. While VGG purchased the capital assets, such as the solar panels and the energy storage battery, ATCO ensures that solar energy produced is stored in the battery and used effectively and efficiently so that the community can operate diesel-off for certain periods of time, while still benefitting from safe and reliable power.

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The project came full circle when the NEI team returned to Old Crow with Solvest, a northern Canadian based solar company, to train community members to maintain and operate their new solar energy system. As a result, Old Crow will be able to operate with diesel generators turned off for 95-100 non-consecutive days of the year. The solar farm sits unfenced, a valued and respected community asset, just as originally envisioned by VGG leadership. The community engagement and education element of this project contributed significantly to its success, helping Old Crow align their energy consumption needs with their environmental stewardship values, and instilling great pride within the community.

“Nothing happens without people. We're all in this together and have to work together for a solution,” said Dr. Michael Ross. “Every step along the way we have to make sure the community benefits - that’s the whole purpose of what we’re doing. By virtue of pursuing a project that is meaningful to the community, it’s very meaningful for us [NEI]. I am very proud and fortunate to have been part of this exciting project.”

Article by Kathryn Hallett. This story was first published in the Spring 2020 issue of Yukon: North of Ordinary.