The Importance of Renewables in the North

In every off-grid community in Nunavut, Nunavik, the Northwest Territories, Yukon, and Labrador, diesel generators are used to keep the lights on. Even in some larger communities such as Iqaluit, diesel is the main source of power.1

The Problem with Diesel

The issue with diesel generated power is that it’s dirty. Not only does burning diesel produce unwanted pollutants, it also requires being transported by truck, train, or plane; all of which emit greenhouse gases. Energy use in the Canadian North is notably different from the rest of the country. Almost three-quarters of northern fuel consumption is a by-product of refined oil. Because the population in the far northern regions of Canada are so far dispersed (over 3.5 million square kilometres), the cost of energy distribution is huge, which also causes a high cost of living in the north. Nunavut, specifically, uses 100 percent diesel generated electricity.2

Greenhouse gases aren’t the only problem with diesel generators. Environment Canada lists dozens of chemicals known to be released in the burning of diesel, which includes mercury, formaldehyde, and sulphur dioxide. In Iqaluit alone, diesel is responsible for producing about 290 litres of formaldehyde each year. Diesel exhaust has also been labelled as a carcinogen by the World Health Organization.1

The Importance of Renewables

Habitat-friendly renewable energy from solar and wind offers a cost-effective way to reduce reliance on fossil fuels, ensure the Arctic marine environment isn’t harmed by spills, and increase independence for remote communities in the North. WWF-Canada’s research into habitat-friendly renewable-energy use in the Arctic shows this transition can be cost-effective. This is an important first step in supporting energy stability in the north that is free of risk to marine and other environments.3

To date, there are very few renewable-energy projects in the Canadian Arctic, and in most cases the wind turbine or solar-panel installations are not large enough to make a substantial dent in diesel use. Some reports and newspaper articles have suggested that the incredible cold and harsh conditions in Nunavut make it an unlikely host for more substantial projects. Alaska is proving, however, that it is possible to install large-scale, successful projects in challenging Arctic conditions.3

Impacts on Industry

Some areas of the North are already making a change. For instance, Gull Bay, Ontario has just celebrated its new solar micro-grid, which will bring clean, renewable energy to the diesel-dependent community. Natural Resources Canada provided $2 million to Ontario Power Generation (OPG) to support the Giizis Energy Micro Grid Project, which integrates a solar photovoltaic and battery power system that will supply renewable power to the existing electricity system. The project also received support from the Gull Bay First Nation, OPG and other partners. The new system will manage energy resources from the solar array, battery storage and diesel generators for this First Nations community, located about 175 kilometres north of Thunder Bay. Prior to this project, the community was fully dependent on diesel for electricity.4

Another community that is successfully moving away from diesel generated power is Fort Chipewyan in northern Alberta. The community is going solar as ATCO gets set to open the first of two large solar projects that will displace 25 per cent of the diesel electricity when complete. The community is home to the Cree, Metis and other indigenous peoples and it sits on the shores of Lake Athabasca, the largest lake in Alberta. Electricity has come from a local diesel microgrid owned and operated by ATCO for decades. The two projects will reduce diesel consumption by 800,000 litres per year. The project will reduce emissions by 2,145 tonnes of CO2 and reduce the risk of diesel tankers navigating the ice road that is only open for about six weeks per year. The project will remove the need for 25 tanker trips each year.


Canada needs to step up and support its northern communities, and help them convert from diesel generated power to renewable power such as solar grids. Renewable energy would not only be better for the environment, but would also decrease the risk of running out of fuel in the far north and better support the communities. Renewables in the north is important and should be talked about more often.


1Thomson, Jimmy. (July 17,2019). Can the North Quit its Diesel Habit? Retrieved from

2National Energy Board. (March 2011). Energy Use in Canada’s North: An Overview of Yukon, Northwest Territories, and Nunavut. Retrieved from the Government of Canada:

3WWF. (2019). Arctic Renewable Energy. Retrieved from

4Natural Resources Canada. (Aug 19, 2019). Solar Project Brings Renewable Energy to the Community of Kiashke Zaaging Anishinaabek – Gull Bay First Nation. Retrieved from