Who better to mine the air's energy than a mining company? After all, harnessing air's value makes good business, energy and environmental sense.
The Diavik Diamond Mine, owned by Rio Tinto and Harry Winston Diamonds, is 300 kilometres from the nearest power pole and has always generated electricity from burning fossil fuels, like many tiny outposts in Canada's North. Operating a diamond mine in the tundra of the Northwest Territories is challenging, even for a mining conglomerate with Rio Tinto's experience, capacity and global breadth. So when this company acts, it's wise for others to watch and learn.
In the early 1980s, the Northwest Territories Power Corp. explored the possibility of using wind power to supplement diesel power plants in many smaller, remote communities. It was a short-lived experiment – equipment failures and difficulties finding experienced maintenance people soured the corporation's take on this emerging technology.
But like the wind, time doesn't stand still – the wind energy and mining sectors have evolved over the past 30 years in the face of unrelenting economic and environmental challenges. Enter Diavik's commitment to use four 2.3-megawatt wind turbines at the mine site in order to reduce diesel consumption by 10 per cent (four million litres) and reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by 12,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide a year – a first for Rio Tinto or any other mining company in the world.
This is a business decision, pure and simple. But it will have reverberations across the North and for other industrial operations and communities not connected to a conventional power grid. And like any business decision, Diavik thought this through very carefully. It spent three years collecting wind data, researching wind turbines and designing the project.
The mine's initiative is beginning to reshape public- and private-sector thinking about wind energy in the NWT. Diavik donated its weather tower to local companies Det'on Cho Earth Energy and Ryfan Wind, and has offered to share its know-how in wind-power engineering, project management and operations and maintenance with the territorial government and the NWT Power Corp.
Unlike the NWT, Alaskan communities have ventured into wind energy is a big way. The state has a combined 12.65 MW of community-scale wind-diesel systems operating in 16 communities. The NWT has none, but if its 33 remote communities follow in Alaska's footsteps, we can expect to see much more wind-generated electricity. Tuktoyaktuk is looking to be the territory's first community with a 300-KW wind-power system that could displace 10 per cent of its diesel consumption.
The NWT government is currently assessing wind in seven communities. Early research indicates that most communities do not have the world-class wind resource of 7.3 metres per second, as exists at Diavik, which is above the tree line. But as the economic and environmental costs of diesel continue to rise, Diavik has proved that wind energy can certainly be a part of the energy solution.
This mine will be home to the world's largest remote wind-diesel power installation. The NWT has the opportunity to watch and learn. Diavik's business model of partnering with governments, sharing expertise and leaving a lasting legacy is a beacon for northern communities.
Louie Azzolini is executive director of the Arctic Energy Alliance and a professional planner with 25 years of private- and public-sector planning experience. He lives in Yellowknife.