The town of Norman Wells, Northwest Territories was established 75 years ago, and most of its residents rely on natural gas supplied by a piping network owned by Imperial Oil. That gas has powered their heating and cooking appliances, their gas dryers and the central power stations. But soon, a large part of the 800 people living in this remote community – and most local businesses – will have to get their energy elsewhere.
Norman Wells is accessible only by plane, except for the eight weeks a year when the winter road is open. But it doesn’t seem like a community that would ever have to deal with an energy crisis. It is home to Canada’s most northerly producing oil field, which pumps 40,000 barrels of sweet crude down its pipeline every day. It sits on the proposed route of the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline. But after the town council announced that it will no longer act as an energy provider, as they no longer have access to the natural gas produced as a by-product from the oil field, the people of Norman Wells were given a choice- switch sources or leave town. Businesses have until July 2013 to make the move. Residents have until 2014.
So what will the people of Norman Wells do? Can they use this crisis to fuel positive change?
The current proposal is that power be supplied via diesel generators and that each individual building look after their own heating system. Fuel oil and propane have been deemed the only viable heating sources. But there are big problems with both, including storage, timing, stocking, labour and shipping issues – not to mention the obvious environmental impacts.
So the residents of Norman Wells are asking questions and speaking out. Why are fossil fuel options the only choices being offered to us? Shouldn’t we be encouraging more innovation and less reliance on fossil fuels, rather than the opposite?
Citizens and business owners are talking about becoming owners of their own energy supply – and a model for the rest of the country. So they’re coming together to look into alternative energy options.
A biomass-fed district heating system would lend itself well to Norman Wells. The buildings are relatively close together and there is an existing above-ground utilidor. Money is already allocated for new infrastructure, and in the long run, a system like this would eliminate the regular costs and risks of bringing in fossil fuels.
And if Norman Wells could add power to the mix by building a community-wide biomass-fed combined heat and power system, it could set an innovative example and become the model town it’s striving to be. Biomass-fed boilers have been popping up throughout the country and in particular in the NWT, but not often on a community-wide scale and never in the NWT as a combined heat and power system. Biomass, whether imported wood pellets made from sawmill waste, or local sustainably harvested wood is a clean, renewable and efficient source of heat. Privately owned businesses are switching to biomass for purely economic reasons – it is cheaper than fossil fuels. The plan is environmentally friendly makes good business sense. But it will never get off the ground without changing peoples mindset towards alternative energy sources. This will require technical expertise – and financial help to demonstrate the viability of this technology.
Photos courtesy of L Robinson.