‘Nation-building moment’: Yukon eyes connection to B.C. electricity grid

Yukon’s energy minister says Canada’s push for more green energy and a net-zero electricity grid should spark renewed interest in connecting the territory’s power to British Columbia.
Yukon’s energy minister, John Streicker, says Canada’s push for more green energy and a net-zero electricity grid should spark renewed interest in connecting the territory’s power to British Columbia. Streicker looks on during question period at the Yukon Legislative Assembly in Whitehorse on Wednesday, March 22, 2023. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Crystal Schick)

Yukon’s energy minister says Canada’s push for more green energy and a net-zero electricity grid should spark renewed interest in connecting the territory’s power to British Columbia.

Minister of Energy, Mines and Resources John Streicker says linking the territory’s power grid to the south would help with the national move to renewable energy, support the mineral extraction required for green projects, and improve northern energy and Arctic security.

“We’re getting to the moment in time when we will want an electricity grid which stretches from coast to coast to coast. … I think that the moment is coming for this — it’s sort of a nation-building moment. And I think that from the Yukon’s perspective, we’re very interested,” Streicker said in an interview.

The idea of a link, originally proposed to span 763 kilometres between Whitehorse and Iskut, B.C., was first floated in 2016 but sat on the shelf after a viability study put the price tag at as much as $1.7 billion.

Two years later, Yukon’s then-energy-minister Ranj Pillai — now premier — mused again about the possibility of connecting to power from B.C.’s Site C hydro dam.

The idea appeared to have been resurrected at this year’s Western Premiers’ Conference in June, with both Pillai and B.C. Premier David Eby publicly mentioning early conversations.

At the conference, Eby said British Columbia was fortunate to have the ability to support other jurisdictions with its hydro electricity.

“So certainly part of the conversation was how do we support each other in sharing our strength?” he said.

“And one of those that British Columbia was able to put on the table is if we can find ways to enter ties with, for example, with the Yukon, to support them in their efforts to access more electricity to grow their economy and decarbonize their electrical grid, then that’s very good news for everybody.”

The federal government has set a target of making the country’s electricity grid net-zero by 2035.

Canada’s grid is already nearly 85 per cent clean, but demand is expected to double by 2050 as things like cars, buses and trains become electric, and homes and buildings switch away from fossil-fuel heating sources.

In Yukon, all but four communities are connected to the same electricity network with about 93 per cent of electricity generated by hydro plants and wind and the remainder from diesel and liquefied natural gas.

Like the rest of the country, the territory’s need for electricity is growing as its population expands and people have more interest in greener technology, Streicker said, adding that connecting to B.C. would also help stabilize the system when new mines come on and off the grid.

“I think ultimately … there’s an opportunity for us to sell power,” he said.

“I’m not saying that that’s where we are today, but we do spill energy in the summer, and we do need energy in the winter. So that may be the type of future that we have.”

In 2022 Canada released its critical mineral strategy proclaiming minerals the “building blocks for the green and digital economy” while acknowledging “gaps” in enabling energy infrastructure, which could be addressed through investments such as expanding transmission lines.

“One of the things that you will need to develop that transition away from fossil fuels is things like copper to help with more electric vehicles, or for transmission lines,” Streicker said.

“And so you’ll need some critical minerals, and the Yukon has that potential as well.”

The pitch comes at a time when British Columbia is also on the hunt for new sources of electricity.

In June, BC Hydro said it was preparing a call for new independent power producers as forecasts suggest the province is going to need enough new power to run 270,000 homes starting as early as 2028.

In a statement, B.C.’s Ministry of Energy, Mines and Low Carbon Innovation said that while the province is open to sharing excess power, the “priority is to meet this growing demand at home.”

“The possibility of creating a power grid connection between British Columbia and Yukon has long been discussed, however building the transmission infrastructure poses challenges and a potential cost of over $1 billion,” the statement says. It says the idea will be a topic for the task force in charge of finding new sources of electricity.

The territories are often excluded when it comes to research on the future of Canada’s electricity grid.

Brett Dolter, an assistant economics professor at the University of Regina who focuses on climate and energy policy, said studies on how provinces could get to net-zero found that transmission played a key role, particularly when connecting provinces with hydro assets, like B.C., to neighbouring provinces still relying on coal or natural gas.

“Connecting provinces together could help get to zero emissions for less cost than if we tried to operate each province as its own little fiefdom, operating only to meet its own domestic needs,” he said.

The key question, he said, will be if connecting B.C. and Yukon will allow for cheaper electricity.

“B.C. has been a big exporter of electricity. So they might be looking to this project as an export opportunity. The Yukon would probably be happy if they can boost supply and maybe eliminate the use of some of those diesel generators, which don’t run that much, but that’s an expensive kind of power generation,” he said.

“So if there’s any way that buying B.C. power can offset diesel, I think that the Yukon is going to benefit. And then it’d be a further benefit if the Yukon can develop some of these renewables that might feed into B.C.”

Lynne Couves, program director for the renewables in remote communities program at the Pembina Institute, said while the price tag is significant, the decision to go ahead or not is far from simple and needs to be considered with an eye on the future.

“When we consider long-term benefits of these projects, and the opportunity to electrify and decarbonize across sectors, I think that there’s definitely some positives in looking at these numbers in a different way,” she said.

Couves said the fact that Yukon is not covered under the federal government’s recently announced electricity regulations could be an obstacle to accessing funding.

At the same time, conversations around reconciliation, Indigenous rights to self-determination and energy sovereignty are common in the territories, she said.

“More opportunities for Indigenous-owned renewable energy development is really, really important.”

Streicker said the territory will be promoting the idea of a link as part of its submission to Ottawa from energy roundtables set up around the country.

He said early conversations have taken place with Yukon First Nations governments that have expressed interest in a possible equity stake in this type of infrastructure.

Streicker said the cost of a project has likely grown since the $1.7-billion estimate from seven years ago and would have to include help from the federal government, but he believes the willingness to have the conversation is there.

Along with the benefits around Arctic sovereignty and critical minerals, he said Canadians understand the need for equity in smaller northern communities.

“There’s a bit of a sense, for example, that if you’re in British Columbia, and you’re trying to develop, say, access to internet, you don’t give up on small communities just because they’re in the north,” he said.

“And I think there’s a similar sort of sense that Canadians have about the territories, and it’s just the cost of having a country which has such a broad geography.”

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