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Canada to regulate new diesel generators, cut Arctic pollution in 2018

Diesel engines running 24 hours a day in the Arctic are major black carbon emitters, though diesel vehicles pose a larger problem overall


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Canada’s northern communities have long relied on diesel generators to supply their power. PHOTO: Janne Wallenius/Wikimedia Commons

OTTAWA—The federal government plans to introduce new regulations next year to try to match decade-old American standards for new diesel-powered generators.

Environment Minister Catherine McKenna was presented with a strategy in June to combat short-lived climate pollutants, including ozone, methane and black carbon, the latter of which is one of the most troublesome—and sometimes deadly—pollutants in the Canadian Arctic.

The strategy is part of Canada’s push to reduce greenhouse gas emissions under the Paris climate change accord.

Black carbon is produced by the incomplete burning of fossil fuels and is the third-largest contributor to global warming after carbon dioxide and methane. It is a significant contributor to global warming, especially in the Arctic, where it not only traps heat when suspended in the air but also makes snow and ice absorb more heat, melting them more quickly and increasing surface temperatures.

In Canada, diesel-powered vehicles are the main source of black carbon, which is 3,200 times more potent as an environmental warming agent than carbon dioxide.

The briefing documents, obtained by The Canadian Press through the Access to Information Act, show diesel-powered electricity generators are not a huge component of Canada’s overall black carbon emissions but they are a big deal in the North, “where engines operate 24 hours a day for off-grid electricity generation, often in close proximity to homes and schools, impacting local air quality.”

Coupled with a greater use of wood-burning appliances and stoves, which are also a producer of black carbon, the diesel generators are a significant health and environmental concern in northern Canada.

Diesel is the main source of electricity for more than 200 remote communities in Canada, including every Inuit community in both Nunavut and the Northwest Territories. Five years ago the World Health Organization labelled it carcinogenic and found it also can cause respiratory and cardiovascular illnesses, affect the immune system and cause reproductive problems and developmental delays.

Last year, a Health Canada study found more than 700 people in Canada died prematurely in 2015 because of exposure to diesel exhaust just from vehicles, including about 400 attributed directly to black carbon. That doesn’t include the number of premature deaths that could be caused by exposure to other sources of black carbon including diesel generators.

The documents say the Canadian regulations will be published in draft form sometime in 2018 and will be similar to the U.S. regulations for diesel generators that have existed now for 11 years. McKenna’s spokeswoman said Monday not to expect the regulations until the second half of 2018.

The strategy also calls for federal money to help retrofit or replace existing diesel generators. A $220-million, four-year fund to help ease reliance on diesel in the North was announced in this year’s federal budget. Natural Resources Canada issued an online questionnaire earlier this fall to seek input on ideas for that money; a request for proposals for pilot projects is due before Christmas.

Ontario estimates it will cost $1.35 billion to connect just 17 northern First Nations to its electrical grid, a project being undertaken with a First Nations-owned utility after a business case showed it was more economical than to continue buying and flying in diesel to the communities.

Canada has committed to using only clean power in its own facilities by 2025, and the strategy notes converting Arctic facilities to clean power could be a great demonstration project for what can be accomplished. Solar power options can’t be used year round because of the winter sunlight limitations, but in the summer many northern locations have more solar potential than major urban centres in the south.


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