Building sustainable energy from the ground up in Newfoundland and Labrador

At first glance, the future of energy production and consumption in Newfoundland and Labrador doesn’t look so bad. The provincial government often boasts that when the Muskrat Falls mega-hydroelectric dam goes online, 98 per cent of the province’s electricity needs will be provided by renewable energy. Considering that fossil fuels account for 82 per cent of energy production worldwide, that’s an impressive number.

 However, as many critics of the project have pointed out, renewable energy doesn’t necessarily mean sustainable energy. Once running, Muskrat Falls will reduce the province’s greenhouse gas emissions, but it also runs the risk of wreaking environmental havoc via methyl-mercury poisoningflooding of communities or a collapse of the North Spur, in addition to the many social implications of massive cost overruns, which will likely be passed on to Newfoundlanders and Labradorians through increases in taxes and electricity bills.

 “Yes, you need to be environmentally sustainable. But, in order to be truly sustainable, you also have to be economically sustainable and you have to be socially sustainable,” said Nick Mercer, a PhD candidate from the University of Waterloos Institute for Sustainable Energy.

PhD student Emily Doyle takes us into her garden as she talks about the beautiful potential gardens have to make us healthier, happier, and more food secure in Newfoundland and Labrador.

For nearly a decade, Mercer has been studying sustainable energy options in Newfoundland and Labrador. His masters thesis explored the barriers to wind energy use in the province; despite having one of the strongest potentials for wind energy development in the country, Newfoundland and Labrador in last in its development. Two utility-scale wind farms, in St. Lawrence and Fermuse, can produce up to 54MW of wind energy— a minuscule amount compared to Ontario’s 4361MW, or even Nova Scotia’s 552MW.

 Mercer found that while a number of factors that contribute to the lack of wind energy development in the province, most of the significant barriers are political in nature. A lack of political interest, preoccupation with oil and gas, and the historical “mega-project mentality” of the provincial government, combined with legislation that effectively gives Nalcor a monopoly on the sale and production of energy in the province leaves little room for innovation in developing alternative sources of energy.

 “[Mega-projects aren’t] necessarily a bad thing,” Mercer said. “The problem is, we’ve become so addicted to this economic development strategy that we ignore smaller projects that may be more conducive to community stability.”

 After an 86-hour filibuster in December 2012, the House of Assembly passed Bill 61. The bill gives Newfoundland Hydro (a subsidiary of Nalcor) the “Exclusive right to supply, distribute and sell electrical power or energy.” Its purpose was to secure a federal loan guarantee, under the premise that ratepayers will have no choice but to purchase power from Nalcor, effectively preventing competition and burdening Newfoundlanders and Labradorians with any additional costs of the project. Since then, the price tag on the project has nearly doubled and there’s a very real possibility that the same could happen to ratepayer’s electricity bills.

In its inception, Muskrat Falls was meant to replace the oil-burning Holyrood Thermal Generating station, which provides 30 per cent of the province’s energy during peak times and can consume up to 18,000 barrels of oil a day. When that happens, the province’s energy will be 98 per cent renewable. Meanwhile, 21 remote communities throughout Newfoundland and Labrador will remain reliant solely on diesel generating stations for their electricity, the new transmission line bypassing them entirely.

 It’s in these off-grid communities that Mercer saw a rare opportunity for innovation in sustainable energy development. Combined, they consume some 15 million litres of costly diesel a year, which is subsidized by grid-connected customers. The current system, he says, isn’t environmentally, socially, or economically sustainable. Ratepayers pay 75-80 per cent of the subsidized costs through small premiums on their bill, while residents in the isolated communities have to deal with fuel leaks, spills and emissions in addition to struggling with what Mercer calls “heat security.”

 The subsidies will only cover a certain amount of electricity— most residents pay 11¢ per kWh for the first 1000 kWh, but after that, the rate shoots to 17¢.1000 kWh is enough electricity to meet most basic needs—lights, computers, appliances, etc.— but it isn’t enough to heat a home during a harsh Labrador winter, Mercer says.

 For his doctoral thesis, Mercer has partnered with the Nunatukavut Community Council to explore and improve community-based energy sustainability initiatives in three communities chosen for case studies: Black Tickle, St. Lewis and Norman Bay, which have around 135, 180, and 95 permanent residents each, respectively.

 Mercer’s research design differs from traditional renewable energy fieldwork. In order to build sustainable energy plans for the communities, he first needed to identify the problems that had to be addressed.

 “Far too often, us as researchers and policy-makers and academics, we try to solve problems that dont actually exist,” he said.

 Through a grant from the Conservation Corps Newfoundland and Labrador, Mercer was able to hire three full-time local research assistants, one in each community. Because the assistants were already deeply embedded in their communities, he credits them with effectively engaging community members. Roughly half of each community participated in interviews and were excited to come together to solve issues collectively, he said.

 Although it’s too early to share any data analysis, Mercer said that the problems that the communities emphasized were vastly different: in Black Tickle, a tundra island without firewood or an oil supplier, residents are unable to afford the electric heat generated by the diesel station to heat their homes. In Northern Bay, transportation was the biggest issue. Residents depend on a twice-weekly helicopter service, which is expensive and also contributes to emissions.

 Taking his cues from the residents themselves, Mercer says that he plans to work with the communities to develop sustainable energy plans based on their concerns.

 “It’s a lifelong relationship. Our fieldwork component might be done now, we’ve visited the communities, we’ve done the interviews, we’re just starting. Now it’s time to continue working with them and design solutions to make tangible improvements in their lives,” he said.

 “A key goal has to be to return [the benefits from the research] to the community, be it job creation or a new energy system, etc.”

 Considering that there are 251 isolated communities across Canada that also rely on diesel generators for electricity, he hopes that his work will help to establish a framework that allows for renewable energy research to develop into projects that are truly sustainable.

 “We’re working from the bottom up to show that if you work with community members and you take it one step at a time, and you build social cohesion and consensus, that that’s how you go about building sustainable energy projects. If you flip that around, of course, you’ve got a mega-project like Muskrat Falls that was imposed on community members, which has led to all kinds of sustainability tensions,” Mercer said. “These mega-projects aren’t always necessarily sustainable, even though they may be renewable energy technologies.”

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Read more from the Post-Oil NL project. You can find other fiction and nonfiction stories related to the Post-Oil NL project here.
Post-Oil Fiction:Part 3
Post-Oil Fiction:Part 2
Post-Oil Fiction: Part 1





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