The Arctic is a diverse and critical region that is experiencing significant environmental, social, and economic changes due to the climate crisis at a rate four times faster than the rest of the world. Many communities in the Arctic share the challenges faced by remoteness and a changing climate. As a result, there are many benefits to international Arctic collaboration and research which might inform communities’ responses to these challenges. One such benefit is the case of energy transitions.
Currently, 80% of Arctic communities rely on diesel for their energy needs. This implies a timely need for a transition in the region to renewable energy sources. The case studies in Iqaluit (Canada), Tiksi (Russia), and the Faroe Islands present both unique and shared experiences of remote energy systems. The fieldwork by early career researchers in these diverse Arctic regions provides fertile ground for connection and collaborative thinking. As demonstrated below, these case studies, put next to each other, examine challenges and opportunities for the Arctic energy transition.
Iqaluit, Nunavut (Canada)
In Canada, a clean energy transition is often offered as a path towards reconciliation. While the transition to renewables in remote and northern communities may offer many opportunities, it is important to consider the community’s wants and needs as central to any infrastructure changes. Nunavut is ninety-nine per cent dependent on diesel to meet its annual heating and electrical needs. Diesel in remote Northern communities offers many challenges. Firstly, all diesel fuel must be imported into the Canadian Arctic. Importation occurs through planes, sea barges during the warmer months, and trucks to road-connected communities. It is known that diesel generation presents negative health impacts, such as noise and air pollution, as well as environmental impacts, such as diesel spills and high emissions. Iqaluit is the capital and largest city in Nunavut and relies on diesel generators for its electricity needs. As with many northern communities in Canada, Iqaluit is limited and impacted by ageing infrastructure, including energy infrastructure. The Canadian federal government has demonstrated increasing interest in a northern and remote renewable energy transition. This can be seen through the “Indigenous Off-Diesel Initiative” and other similar federal programs. Canada has the opportunity to learn how to address energy limits and concerns from neighbouring Arctic States; two such examples follow below.
The governance model of the Faroe Islands differs from Iqaluit in that they are a self-governing nation within the Kingdom of Denmark situated in the North-East Atlantic. With a growing population comes an increasing need for electricity and energy, and the Faroese are seeing record-breaking demand for energy year on year. Like Iqaluit, until relatively recently Faroese energy consumption has relied almost entirely upon oil and gas that has to be imported via ocean to reach the islands, which are situated 290 kilometres away from their closest neighbour, Shetland. Public energy company, SEV, who produce around 90% of Faroese energy, has consumed an average of 39,801 tons of oil annually since 2012, with consumption during 2019-2022 rising to an average of 49,498 tons in order to meet growing Faroese energy needs.
As an island Arctic nation, the Faroes are susceptible to increasing climate change impacts, and the government has led a drive to become ‘the world’s greenest group of islands’ and lead the way in green technology development. Setting extremely ambitious energy transition targets, together with SEV in 2016, the Faroese government announced a commitment to achieving Net Zero and 100% renewable energy use by 2030. At the time of this announcement, the nation was heavily reliant on fossil fuels for its energy needs. This stands out from other Arctic case studies of energy transitions as the remote nature of the Faroe Islands is actually attracting attention and participation from several international organisations, including Hitachi, Minesto, ABB, and Norwegian Rock Energy. These organisations have been drawn by the islands’ unique geopolitical position, significant road and shipping-based infrastructure, and their increased access to renewable resources. These factors are bringing in significant investment and enabling an impressive selection of renewable energies, including experimental technologies such as wind-powered heating systems and groundbreaking tidal kites to be trailed and developed here. With huge investments in wind power, hydropower, tidal power, and biogas, the Faroese recently achieved over 50% renewable energy use in 2022, a number which is continuing to grow rapidly and heralds an unusual path to Net Zero among Arctic communities.
The urban settlement Tiksi in the Russian Arctic offers a unique case study of Arctic hybrid energy. The legacy of Soviet development, Tiksi’s diesel power station, has remained at the heart of the town’s energy infrastructure for decades. Between 2016-2021, Japanese New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization (NEDO) together with Russian energy company RusHydro and in collaboration with two governments restructured Tiksi’s energy into a wind-diesel complex. Now, Tiksi’s power system includes a 900 kW three-turbine wind park, an electricity storage system, and two diesel stations, old and new. According to the RusHydro press release, the new energy system decreases the usage of diesel by 500 tons per year. This project was initially conceived as, at first, experimental and, later, hybrid. Tiksi’s new energy infrastructure is part of the broader energy modernization program in remote localities in the Russian Far East that diversifies diesel fuel with renewable energy, such as wind and solar. This case study contributes to discussions about what energy transition in the Arctic means and whether hybrid energy may become a new resource regime in the Arctic. These discussions can be furthered by cross-region research that seeks to understand the complexities of Arctic energy transition on the ground. For example, how can new energy technologies and resources be utilized in various Arctic communities, and what can be learned from hybrid energy infrastructures in the North?
The three examples presented above represent diverse experiences across the Arctic region. Though all locations may share similarities in climate, remoteness, and Arctic status, the energy landscapes and outcomes represent divergent pathways in the energy transition. In the Faroese example, the push towards 100% renewable energy is proving successful largely due to international investment. While Iqaluit is located on an island like the Faroes, the international appeal is not present, and thus experimentation with new energy technologies in Nunavut remains limited. Foreign investment in Nunavut has to contend with many factors, including a limited labour force, remoteness, and the geopolitical climate of Canada. Unlike the Faroes, which have attractive infrastructure, Nunavut’s infrastructure has been depleted by years of underinvestment, which has led to a significant infrastructure gap between Nunavut and the rest of Canada. On the other hand, the implementation of a hybrid power system in Tiksi presents an interesting path forward that may have a lot in common with other northern localities (for example, Alaska). Research in Canada has demonstrated that remote communities may view diesel generation as the most reliable technology available which is vital in northern communities where power outages can be fatal due to the subzero temperatures. Diesel is a mature and thus accepted energy technology and may not confront the uncertainties that new and experimental technologies face. By combining a mature and accepted technology such as diesel power with a newer, lesser-known technology such as wind, community concerns around reliability may be addressed. In this case, the Tiksi example can provide some insights for future transitions in communities such as Nunavut which may be more successful than a 100% renewable approach suggested by the Faroese case study.
Studies of local energy systems and ongoing changes in energy infrastructure in the Arctic communities greatly contribute to better understanding of what energy transition means on the ground. In various sociocultural, economic, and political contexts, energy transitions may look very different. Factors such as the level of community participation and access to new technologies also vary across the region. Research from three arctic localities, presented above, demonstrates the experimental and hybrid nature of newly built or prospective power systems in remote Arctic communities.
By focusing on case studies of different localities across the Arctic, it is possible to identify similarities and prospective solutions to shared energy transition problems. Despite the remoteness of the communities discussed above, these communities are part of a wider network across the Arctic facing similar energy challenges. Research into these energy transitions can foster collaborative approaches across the Arctic to these challenges, and by uncovering the complexities and commonalities of energy transition in the Arctic, a foundation can be built for shaping realistic policies and workable solutions for remote energy projects in the North.
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The Arctic Academy for Sustainability 2023 is part of activities of the UArctic Thematic Network on Arctic Sustainable Resources and Social Responsibility (ASRSR).