The Challenges Of Installing Solar Power In Remote Communities

It’s easy to take electricity for granted, especially if you live in a location where you’re conveniently connected to a major, reliable grid day and night. On-demand hot water, air conditioning, appliances like washers, dryers, and refrigerators, and outlets for charging electronic devices may not feel like anything special.

But for the hundreds of millions of people around the globe who live in remote communities with limited or no access to electricity, it’s a different story. In Canada alone, more than 280 communities (home to approximately 200,000 people) are not connected to the North American electrical grid and continually grapple with the realities of expensive, unreliable, and environmentally unsustainable energy solutions.

As climate change continues to impact communities worldwide and the climate emergency becomes increasingly dire, sustainable energy systems are a major priority for urban and remote communities alike. That being said, remote communities (particularly those in Canada’s north) face unique challenges in terms of renewable energy solutions.

At Powertec Solar, we are proud to be the leading supplier and installer of solar panels in Iqaluit, Nunavut, and we believe that solar power offers incredible potential for helping remote northern communities gain energy autonomy and overcome their reliance on diesel power for electricity, heat, and transportation. But we also recognize that the road to sustainable energy solutions in remote communities can be full of challenges and pitfalls.

Below, we’ll explore some of the energy barriers Canada’s remote northern communities face and why we believe that solar power is a crucial component of effectively resolving them. Properly installed and supported sustainable energy solutions empower communities and lead towards a brighter, cleaner, and more connected future for all.

Energy Inequality Up North

Imagine waking up on a frigid winter morning, uncertain whether or not you’ll have enough heat or light to make it comfortably through the day. Or how about having to choose between paying for heat or purchasing healthy food for your family because of your exorbitantly high energy bill?

Unfortunately, both scenarios are commonplace in many remote northern Canadian communities, where vast and harsh geography, combined with small total population numbers, make services like interconnected roads and power grid systems an impossibility.

In Canada’s north, most remote communities rely on diesel power, a problematic energy source in many ways (see below). From a financial perspective alone, diesel is extremely costly—as much as 10 times more expensive per kilowatt-hour (kWh) than what the average Canadian household pays. (A kilowatt-hour is the amount of energy required to power a 1000-watt appliance for 1 hour.)

Large subsidies are necessary to keep energy costs affordable in Canada’s north (though still much higher than in less remote parts of Canada). In Nunavut, Canada’s largest but most sparsely populated territory, electricity costs are heavily subsidized up to a maximum usage per month of 1000 kWh in the winter and 700 kWh in the summer. Beyond that maximum, residents pay an even higher unsubsidized rate.

Reliance on Diesel Power

In Nunavut, the whole territory’s 25 communities are powered by standalone diesel generators. The diesel fuel to power these generators is typically shipped in once per year and stored in bulk tanks. While diesel is an energy-dense fuel that is able to meet the energy needs of many communities, it often meets those needs in detrimental ways.

Below are some of the major concerns with reliance on diesel power:

  • Diesel-fired generation is not sustainable and contributes to significant greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Diesel fuel is expensive, and volatile prices can contribute to food insecurity.
  • Diesel exhaust is carcinogenic and can put populations at risk of diseases like Tuberculosis.
  • Emergency generators are the only solution when systems go down and dangerous power outages occur (an all-too-frequent event).
  • Diesel transportation, transfer, and storage come with the inherent risk of environmentally damaging oil spills on land or sea.

With the Arctic warming nearly four times faster than the rest of the planet and greenhouse gas emissions continually rising in Iqaluit and other Nunavut communities, cutting reliance on diesel is a critical step for remote northern communities. Solar provides an exciting and sustainable alternative.

Current Utilities Disputes

The technology and momentum exist for establishing renewable solar energy solutions in Canada’s remote north, but systemic on-the-ground challenges often arise. From projects that fail to take root because they don’t align with community needs and concerns to initiatives that get waylaid (sometimes for years) by frustrating bureaucratic processes or administrative conflicts with utilities providers, the path towards establishing successful solar programs can feel like an uphill battle.

But the challenges are also balanced by rapidly evolving initiatives and inspirational successes. Individuals and entire communities are looking for meaningful ways to reduce their reliance on unsustainable energy sources, and solar power offers a way forward.

Opportunities Up North

Northern Canadian communities are actively seeking renewable energy solutions that will benefit them financially, environmentally, and health-wise. Fortunately, territorial governments, the federal government, energy corporations, and other organizations are listening and responding with proactive funding initiatives and incentives.

Qulliq Energy Corporation (QEC), Nunavut’s sole power generation and distribution utility, has offered a net metering program since 2017. Participants in this program can receive credit from QEC in return for excess energy produced by their solar energy system and delivered to the QEC grid. Credit accrued in the sunny summer months can be used to offset energy consumption costs in the darkest days of winter when solar power must be augmented by grid-tied energy. This program alone can drastically reduce both the environmental and financial costs associated with annual power usage.

In addition, various grants and programs exist at the federal and territorial/provincial levels to support renewable energy initiatives and make them attainable for residential and commercial settings. In Nunavut, the Renewable Energy Homeowner Grant Program and Renewable Energy Cabin Grant Program offer opportunities to homeowners, as do the federal Canada Greener Homes Grant and Canada Greener Homes Loan. For businesses, the federal Clean Energy Technology Tax Credit has been announced, and more details are pending.

Reliability of Renewable Energy

QEC expresses concerns about the costs and potential intermittency associated with the development, installation, and maintenance of renewable energy systems, especially in communities where energy costs are extremely high and power outages are already a fact of life. It emphasizes that while large grid systems can better accommodate the fluctuations associated with solar and other renewable energy sources, such as wind power, the challenges are much greater with small power systems.

These points are valid, but they don’t tell the whole story. In many instances, renewable energy sources are actually more reliable and affordable than diesel energy—not to mention—much safer and more sustainable both environmentally and health-wise.

The truth is that solving the complex social, economic, and environmental puzzle of remote northern energy security is not a simple or straightforward undertaking, but solar power offers an effective and welcome alternative to unsustainable options like diesel. The development of new technologies and solutions is ongoing.

Battles With Bureaucracy

The government of Canada has made it a goal to eliminate diesel-powered electricity generation in remote communities by 2030, but there are many hurdles to overcome. That being said, each successful project—no matter how small or large—represents a tangible step in the right direction and a more sustainable future for Canada’s northern communities in the long term.

Remote Communities Already Taking Action

In many communities across northern Canada, major renewable energy success stories are already unfolding, galvanizing attainable footsteps for other communities to follow: In Old Crow, Yukon, a solar farm now generates 24% of the town’s energy; in Sanikiluaq, Nunavut, a recent wind project is expected to cut diesel fuel reliance in half; and in Fort Chipewyan, Alberta, residents are benefitting from Canada’s largest off-grid solar project.

Momentum, potential, and the technology to support more solar (and other renewable energy) projects abound, bringing the hope of true energy autonomy and sovereignty to Canada’s remote northern communities. Powertec Solar is proud to be part of the solution.

Installing Solar Panels With Powertec Solar

As the leading supplier and installer of solar panels in Iqaluit, Powertec Solar possesses the knowledge, experience, and expertise to bring superior solar technology to your remote northern community. Supportive, professional, and unphased by the challenges of remote work, we offer solar solutions for private residences, commercial settings, industrial settings, Indigenous communities, major off-grid projects, and more.

At Powertec Solar, our mission is to help Canadians take energy production into their own hands—an incredible and empowering opportunity for those struggling with the challenges of energy insecurity and inequality in remote northern communities.

Get in touch with our team at Powertec Solar to learn more about how we can support you and collaborate with you in overcoming any hurdles that may stand in the way of achieving your renewable energy goals. Call or email us directly, or start your free solar energy feasibility analysis here.