Power plugged: Proposals from solar panels to extension cable to the mainland debated as alternatives to coal


Reality check: Longyearbyen isn’t going to stop burning coal for power during the next year. Or ten. Or maybe even the 25 that represents the existing power plant’s life expectancy.
But a lot of hot air is being generated by those wondering what’s eventually next.

Plugging in a long extension cable to the mainland? An underground hot tub gathering to stay warm? Having folks apply liberal amounts of sun screens?

Members of Parliament will debate all of that and more this fall, taking their cues from ministry officials, researchers, local politicians, environmental activists and others participating in often-charged discussions about that aspect of the town’s future after coal mining.

And while the idea of cleaner energy in the pristine Arctic archipelago might be what’s sexy in the discussions, ultimately the practical issues are about money.

How will the enormous costs of a new power system be funded? How efficient and costly will they be on a long-term basis? And if various local places start implementing alternative energy sources in significant amounts in the meantime, how does the city deal with fewer residents paying the same fixed costs of the current coal-fired plant?

“The global coal market is in free fall,” said Runa Haug Khoury, a senior advisor for the environmental organization Bellona, in an interview with NRK. “That alone fuels the debate  about how to supply Svalbard with energy in the years ahead. One has to take the cost of that one way or another and there is an urgent need now to assess what options you want to go for.”

Khoury was among those attended the annual week-long Arendalsuka conference in mid-August in Oslo. Future power sources for Svalbard was a major topic on the agenda, but there was hardly a consensus about the best single source – or if there should be one.

“One can imagine that we can produce energy in Svalbard during the summer using the sun and import energy during the winter through a power cable from the mainland,” said Trine Skei Grande, head of Norway’s Liberal Party, told the news network. “That is a large and expensive project, but it must be seen in connection with what we want in electricity platforms that are on the way. It’s an exciting thought which also reduces emissions in the oil industry, which is very important.”

Another potential source is geothermal energy. Among those studying the possibility is Thomas Beka, a physicist at The University of Tromsø – The Arctic University of Norway, who collected data from 80 sites in central and northwestern part of Spitsbergen between 2013 and 2015

“Our new data indicate geothermal resources in multiple locations,” he told the science website forskning.no. “Among other things, we found that Brøggerhalvøya and Adventdalen could be promising for utilization of thermal energy.”

The discussion about power in Parliament will be part of a larger debate about Svalbard’s future as politicians evaluate the recommendation in a revised “white paper” for the archipelago released earlier this year. The paper – which outlines policy goals for Svalbard, based on input from various ministries local officials – was updated to the near-total shot down of Store Norske’s coal mining.

As with electricity, a diversity of non-coal sources is emphasized when it comes to replacement industries. But ministry officials said when the paper was released it doesn’t envision significant government spending to boost infrastructure – with the exception of a new harbor – disappointing many local officials and residents.

Grande is meeting with Longyearbyen residents and leaders this week to discuss the white paper, but she told Svalbardposten that despite many suggestions from locals about future power supplies a considerable amount of evaluation remains to be done.

“That the message was so negligent in saying something about the energy situation was also my first reaction,” she said. “But then it is not possible to have an answer now; first we need to have the most comprehensive possible possible. We can’t decide on a way to do this now.”