During our visit to Narsaq, we heard some unexpected (to us) good news here on the front lines of global warming impacts. A small-scale hydro project is under construction just east of here that should free both Narsaq and nearby Qaqortoq from dirty, and expensive, diesel electricity generation.
For many communities in the northern and remote areas, most if not all, of their electricity is produced by burning a variety of diesel known as bunker fuel. This type of electricity generation is one of the most polluting ways to generate electricity (although less polluting than the coal used in a number of different countries like the U.S. that relies on coal for 60 percent of it's electricity production), both from local air pollution as well as from a global warming perspective.
From that perspective, Narsaq is no different than say a small community in the Canadian or U.S. Arctic. The diesel engines used here are 40-year-old ship engines. There are three of them - two are required to produce enough energy for the town, the third one for back-up and maintenance purposes. One would think that in a place like Greenland, people wouldn't suffer from air pollution related disease such as asthma, yet they do.
Generally speaking, diesel fuel has a high content of particulates and other pollutants, which are prone to cause respiratory diseases. In the case of bunker fuel it is even worse. These black diesel particulate emissions also coat snow and ice, making it less reflective and more prone to melting. Furthermore, like all use of fossil fuels, burning diesel creates the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide. So for many reasons the news of the Qorlortorsuaq small dam project, which should help these communities diminish their dependence on diesel power, is quite welcome.
The project consists of a small dam under construction just east of here that will produce 7.2 MW of power, enough for 5,000 people. Transmission lines will also have to be set up to then bring the power to Narsaq and Qaqortoq - hopefully allowing them to shut down their dirty diesel generators for good. This project has the other advantage of being able to produce energy at a much lower cost than diesel generation.
Greenpeace's position regarding hydropower is one of a case by case analysis. As a general rule, we don't like large dams because of the massive flooding they create, local populations they tend to displace as well as the fact they do emit, although less then fossil fuels electricity generation, greenhouse gases (through the decay of flooded vegetation for example).
In the case of small dams, the question that often arises is what is "small" - i.e. the amount of power generation (in MW), the area flooded or some other factor. In the case of the Qorlortorsuaq dam, 7.2 MW would be considered small by all definitions I have seen! Of course, the community needs here are also quite small.
Across the Arctic, there other similar interesting projects being developed such as the "Renewable energy for northern communities" program by the Canadian Government which aims to install hybrid wind and solar systems with conventional diesel generators to reduce communities dependence on fossil fuel. It's encouraging to see that the renewable energy message is reaching even the more remote parts of our world.
If only countries like the U.S., Canada and others could do the same.
[Photo credit: Edvard Bach]