KATINNIQ, QUE. • Eight hundred kilometres from the treeline on the northern tip of Quebec lies an expansive sweep of rock so bleak and barren the Inuit never once thought about settling there.
It’s desolate. It’s cold. To a visitor mesmerized this week by the ground’s brownish-grey stones, ripped apart by repeated freezing cycles, it might as well be the surface of Mars.
“People here freak out when they see a bug, it’s so unusual,” laughs one worker. Says the flight attendant when she opens the plane’s door on arrival: “It’s not snowing today so that’s already a positive.”
This is Katinniq on the Ungava Peninsula, site of Glencore Plc’s Raglan nickel-copper mine. It’s here that an ambitious multi-year trial is set to begin on what promoters are calling Canada’s first industrial-scale wind power and energy storage facility – a wind turbine generation and stockpiling system that will help power the mine and, if successful, serve as a model for similar systems that could be installed in diesel-dependent communities across the Arctic.
“If the technology works here in the way we hope it will, the implications for power generation across the North are enormous,” Prime Minister Stephen Harper said 11 months ago when he visited the mine and announced federal funding for initial work on the project.
Since then, optimism has ballooned. Cash-strapped Quebec this week invested another $6.5-million to help Glencore and its technology partner Tugliq Énergie install a first wind turbine and power storage facility on the site. Provincial lawmakers and company executives are as enthusiastic about the potential for a game-changing development in the north as the prime minister was.
“In five years, all Inuit villages could be powered by wind,” says Laurent Abbatiello, Tugliq’s chief financial officer, adding he sees smaller northern communities ultimately using a mix of wind, solar power and liquified natural gas.
The change could boost industry and other business in the north as well, he says. “When energy there is as much as $1.50 per kilowatt hour, as it has been, it’s very hard to develop anything. Less than 20¢, which is where we think we can get it, you’re starting to hit a price point where it’s justifiable to develop businesses.”
Sitting in a meeting room at Raglan’s lodge, a crab-shaped structure whose creature comforts were engineered by a former Club Med manager, Glencore vice-president Kristan Straub reflects on what motivated the company to push forward with wind power to cut down on the 60 million litres of diesel the mine uses every year. About 10 million of that amount is jet fuel for the company’s two Boeing 737s. The rest is used to power the mine’s monstrous concentrator, which grinds the rock down, as well as underground air systems and other needs.
“Our costs are completely different from the south,” Mr. Straub says, noting the mine is off the electric grid and powered solely by diesel shipped in by boat to nearby Deception Bay on the Hudson Strait. “Labour and diesel. Those are our costs. And if we can find a way to get those down, we will.”
The total price tag of the trial project is $22.6-million. Glencore won’t say what the payback time is, citing confidentiality between the project partners. The company estimates that one turbine alone will save the equivalent of 2.5 million litres of diesel a year, representing 5% of the diesel volume used at the mine site right now. If the trial goes well, they’ll move into a second phase with more turbines and a target of generating 50% or more of the mine’s power by wind. A separate effort is underway to get LNG to the site to diversify the energy supply.
Breaking from diesel is no cake walk.
First there’s the storage issue. Winds blast across the plateau where the turbine is located, about 3 km west of the Raglan camp as the crow flies, reaching dizzying speeds. Justin Bulota, manager of the wind project, says the strongest wind he’s seen on the site topped 186 km/h. That’s the force of a hurricane.
But like anywhere, the winds ebb and flow, and capturing wind power at its peak for use later has frustrated manufacturers for years. Glencore will test a 3-prong storage system incorporating electrolyser stacks, which generate hydrogen from water, as well as flywheels and fuel cells. The hydrogen will be compressed and stored, available as long as 20 hours later.
Integration is an even bigger problem. As Mr. Abbatiello puts it: How to inject into a closed-loop, diesel-powered generating system the energy the wind turbine produces and make sure it’s steady over time. “If Raglan lacked power, you’d have to evacuate the underground mine because it needs ventilation,” he says. “So you need a stable source of energy to have secure mining operations.”
Adding more turbines will make the challenge even bigger as the magnitude of the power swings multiplies. “I’m really focused on making it work here,” Mr. Straub says. “If I can make it work here in this environment and in this operation, [there’s no reason it can’t be] exported to the villages around here.”
Raglan’s 3 megawat, German-made turbine, to be erected this month when the winds die down a bit, has its own peculiarities. The 80-metre high wind mill is anchored with piles drilled 16 metres deep in the rock because pouring a concrete foundation, as it’s typically done, would be too expensive. Having a base above the ground also helps counter the effects of the permafrost.
Inside the pile pipes are rebar cages, which have been twisted by hand. Glencore has picked supplier Enercon’s “Cold Climate Package” option for the equipment, which means it will come with oversized components, heated blades and an elevator. “Not because we’re lazy,” says Mr. Bulota. “But because when it’s minus 40 and we have to climb up, it’s going to be much easier and safer than climbing a ladder.”
This isn’t the first big wind turbine in the north. Rio Tinto Plc’s Diavik diamond mine in the Northwest Territories has a farm of four turbines, put into operation specifically because poor ice road conditions disrupted the supply of diesel by truck to the site in 2006. The company was forced to fly in fuel to keep the mine operating. The projected rise in diesel prices was also a factor in its wind decision.
Diavik estimates it saved $4-million last year on diesel by having wind, said mine superintendant Chris Bertoli. The project will pay for itself in six-eight years but it has no storage capability. Unlike Raglan, whatever power is generated is used right away.
Tom Adams, an energy analyst who’s spoken out against governments spending public money on pricey electricity generation when producers are cranking out power surpluses, said Diavik remains his favourite wind farm in all of North America.
“It’s useful. It’s providing usable energy. There are benefits. I’m fussy about that kind of thing,” he quips. He also notes that there is no public money involved.
“Where you’ve got high energy costs, wind power can be justified,” Mr. Adams says. “Lots of governments have poured untold fortunes into trying to figure out how to [solve the northern energy problem], how to put wind-diesel hybrids into those circumstances.”
The bottom line? Industry has a better shot at finding a workable model for northern power than a bunch of bureaucrats, Mr. Adams says. And as these two miners advance the technology, prove out the operating cost profile of the investments over time and develop a longer track record in real world applications: “It bodes well for pushing this incrementally towards some kind of lasting solution.”