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Vice-President Ben Power's interview with Northern Policy Analytics

Ben Power, Vice President of Solvest Inc., discusses the state of solar energy generation, its impact and its potential for commercialization in Northern Canada.

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In their own words, Northern Policy Analytics (NPA) is an applied policy and research consulting firm based in the Yukon and Saskatchewan. NPA is dedicated to working with northern and indigenous communities to address social and economic challenges, while also advancing technological uptake and innovation.

One of their projects has been hearing from northern innovators and educators working to bridge the gap between the northern territories and their southern neighbours, where innovation, policy, and economic development has been more abundant. The Innovators of Northern Canada Podcast is hosted by Dr. Ken Coates, Canada Research Chair in Regional Innovation. 

Our VP, Ben Power, had the honour of speaking with Ken in their very first episode, The Northern Transition to Solar Energy. The episode has been transcribed and is featured below. The episode was recorded in May 2021. 

Note: the transcription might differ slightly from the audio, as minor adjustments were made for readability purposes. 

Ken Coates
Hello everybody, this is Ken Coates from Northern Policy Analytics. We're involved with a project to promote the commercialization of science and technology in the Canadian North, and in the circumpolar world in general. Our goal with these podcasts is to introduce you to the innovators who are changing the north in some very productive and creative ways.

Our focus really is on economic and social development; we want to improve the quality of life in the north by letting people know about the innovations that are currently underway and coming down the line. We think we can connect the north to the 21st-century science and technology community that is global in nature. Right now, we have a big innovation divide; there’s a lot more going on in the south than you see happening up north. We think we can break that cycle, not by ourselves here at Northern Policy Analytics, but by promoting the work of great companies that are doing such excellent work at bringing new technologies to bear on northern challenges.

Today we're speaking to Ben power from Solvest energy. He comes to us for Whitehorse, Yukon today, Ben, welcome.
 

Ben Power
Thanks for having me, Ken.
 

Ken Coates
Why don’t you just start off by introducing yourself and telling us a little bit about the innovations that you're bringing to bear for Northern Canada?

Ben Power 
Yeah! So, my name is Ben Power. I'm the Vice President and co-founder of Solvest. Solvest is a northern and remote-focused solar EPC: or engineering procurement and construction company. We are focused on the design and construction of solar across northern Canada and all three northern territories as well as in remote, primarily indigenous communities in some of the northern edges of southern provinces.

Ken Coates
That's fantastic. So yourself, are you a longtime Yukoner, or are you new to the North? University-educated? Self-taught? Tell us about your background.

Ben Power
I'm born and raised in Whitehorse, Yukon, so I've grown up in the North. I left for some time to go to university and spent some time living in both Calgary and Toronto. Prior to starting Solvest, I was focused on the construction and primarily the mining exploration industries across northern and western Canada. I've had the opportunity to work at a number of remote mines and campsites and saw firsthand kind of the challenges of remote power generation. Both of my business partners have pretty similar experiences, with extensive backgrounds in the mining or oil and gas industry at remote sites. And so we founded the company, to address those challenges based on our insights into the difficulties of relying on diesel power generation. We feel that solar provides a great path to promoting northern energy self-sufficiency.

Ken Coates
Wonderful. So, just to understand, the innovation functions at a number of different levels and one of them is you take the technology that is developed for a different environment and you adapt it and bring it into the North, and the second one is you look at the North and say there's something unique we can do here you can't do anywhere else. Which part of that puzzle do you fit into it?

Ben Power
I guess a bit of both. I mean, we've certainly had a lot of success in deploying solar in the North despite the fact that most other companies, and even a lot of people in the North (until they've had an opportunity to speak to us and show them differently) assume it's so dark in the North in the winter, why would you invest in solar. The flip side is that you get a ton of sunlight in the spring, summer and fall in many northern communities, and if you go far enough north, you have 24-hour sunlight, so you can offset a lot of energy using solar.

Our focus on solar also comes into the fact that it's very modular and scalable, unlike, say micro-hydro or wind. It works at a small scale, be it a few solar modules on your cabin, maybe 20 on your house, and then you can scale up to 1000s for a utility-scale plant to power a community: so that's a big advantage of solar. It's also not very site-specific, meaning that with wind, often you need to be at a very specific hilltop or location in order for the resource to be viable; with solar however, the difference from any site in the Yukon from the worst to the best site is only 8%. So there's not a big variability in the resource, and that means that it's predictable and reliable.

Ken Coates
That's a really interesting number. I didn't realize that. So tell us a little bit about what you see as the commercial potential. What is the long-term, medium and immediate commercial potential? Or is it mostly working on mine sites? Are you selling services to trappers and summer cottage owners? What's the commercial potential for Solvest?

Ben Power
We serve multiple market segments. I mean, going forward, probably the biggest potential is in remote diesel communities for indigenous communities or remote northern communities, combined with mines. There are over 60 diesel communities in northern Canada that are on isolated microgrids relying entirely on diesel power generation. Additionally, both the main hydroelectric grid in the Yukon and Yellowknife are reaching or exceeding capacity and increasingly relying on fossil fuels to make up the additional capacity on those grids. So, solar can play an important role in offsetting that additional capacity, allowing them to hold more water back in their reservoirs in the summer, rather than relying on hydro in the summer, and then you can use that water in the winter. So that’s a source of big potential, but there's also the fact that just last year, we've built almost 150 residential and commercial grid-tied solar systems (note: this figure is more like 300) just here in the Yukon for homes and businesses. So there's a robust market at the residential and small commercial scale, both here and in the NWT. It’s a bit trickier in Nunavut with such small communities all being on isolated diesel grids, that the capacity on those grids is largely better suited for community-scale projects than individual homes. And we, of course, work with a lot off-grid sites as well, such as remote telecoms, research stations, trapper and hunting lodges, etc.

Ken Coates
That's really interesting. So Ben, as I sort of think about my own reading on solar power, it is really very much at an inflection point. You know, five years ago, solar power was the kind of thing that the harrowsmith crowd found interesting; "my father 25 years ago developed a solar power system to heat a swimming pool. Didn't work worth a darn, but he had lots of fun trying to make it work." It seems to me now we're pretty close to that point where it is actually ahead of the curve, ahead of where we expected it to be. So right now, is it really commercially viable? Or is it still getting close to being commercially viable, both for residents and for businesses?

Ben Power
Yeah, you're absolutely right. Just in the time that Solvest has been operating in the North in the last six years, the price of a solar installation has dropped 80%; so there has been a significant decrease in cost and slow increase in efficiency as well with the modules. Globally, solar is now the lowest cost energy source for new power construction. It's a little bit different in the North, but it is now one of the most competitive sources so solar can compete with LNG power generation, without market incentives on the main power grids in the north, and it's a very viable and economical option for both homeowners but also larger-scale community projects. Where the challenge still remains is when you're talking about remote diesel communities; once you start shutting down diesel generators, you have to include large-scale batteries in the project. If you're just trying to shut the generators down while the sun is shining, then the projects still have a good business case where you're using what's typically called a one hour to one-and-a-half-hour battery and the battery is there just to allow potential small dips in the solar output where the battery will make up the difference. That type of project typically would offset, say, somewhere between 20 and 35% of the community's energy needs on an annual basis. If you want to go past that 35% and really start pushing towards full diesel off, or over 50% reductions in diesel in these communities, that's where the economic challenge remains. The battery technology has not advanced as quickly as solar, and the prices are still much higher. And so you need large batteries in order to say charge them when the sun is shining, and then use them throughout the night or through sustained cloudy periods. So yeah, that's where the issue is.

Ken Coates
So put on your goggles that look 10 years into the future. Describe solar power in the Yukon, let's pick 2040. I'll give you 20 years; what is 20 years now look like in Yukon in terms of solar power?

Ben Power
Okay. In 20 years, I believe that the utilities here will have invested heavily in pumped hydro, as a way of large-scale energy storage, which is allowing them to store months of energy. And this would then open up the grid in the Yukon for large-scale development of solar. In the summer, the grid would run primarily, if not almost exclusively solar power with excess power being generated from both solar and the existing hydroelectric facilities. That excess power would then be pumped uphill into these pumped hydro facilities. And then used during the winter in order to displace fossil fuel generation for when you need peak energy resources in December, in January, February, when it's very cold, and then getting into the more isolated communities, you'd probably see a scale-up of more economic battery technology. And that allows for higher penetration levels of solar to offset 50-60% of diesel. Finally, 2040 might be a bit tight for this one, but I think really the exciting opportunity for the North would be using large-scale solar to convert to hydrogen and using the hydrogen as a way to displace diesel because you can store the energy that way and burn it and it's transportable to Northern and remote regions.

Ken Coates
I mean, what a fascinating sector to be in, what an exciting time for you and how fortunate we are to have Solvest involved in the Yukon in this major way. I’m going to finish up with one small question. It's pretty common for people to say, "oh, we're in the Yukon", "we're in the Northwest Territories", and "we're even in Nunavut", you know, Northerners hang together and we have fairly common problems and fairly standard issues about climates and things of that sort.
You were also talking about the northern provinces. So I'd be really interested in your footprint in the northern provinces because it's an area that doesn't get a lot of attention in Canada. So tell us the kind of range of your involvement and what do you see there in terms of commercial potential?

Ben Power
Yeah, so especially in say, northern Saskatchewan, Manitoba, parts of northern Ontario and Quebec and into Labrador, you have communities that are very similar in terms of the challenges and remote nature that you would see primarily in the NWT and Nunavut; they are often fly-in communities, or maybe ice road or seasonal road access only, and some of those communities in Quebec have the benefit of sea access during the summer, but they're still very isolated and often rely exclusively on diesel. Many of them are also indigenous communities similar to what you would find in northernmost Canada. So they mirror a lot of the challenges that you would find in northern Canada for energy generation and Solvest is developing our expertise and reputation of working effectively and collaboratively with remote indigenous and remote communities. We see a big opportunity to collaborate with these communities and help them in the same way as northern communities in the territories in terms of building solar and microgrid infrastructure to help them be more self-sufficient.

Ken Coates
Well, Ben, I got to tell you this has been your first in our series of Northern policy analytics podcasts on the commercialization of science and technology in the North. I congratulate you on the achievements you have to date and wish you all the best in the future. I hope you succeed in this process of displacing diesel and developing a new economic model for energy in the North. I think it has enormous potential. So again, Ben Power from Solvest, we've been delighted to have you with us today.


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