Petrol power: Gas rises to top of post-coal electricity options for Longyearbyen, government-ordered report states


Gas is cost-effective, clean and secure in terms of supplies, while alternatives such as solar, wind and an a giant “extension cable” from the mainland fail to match up in one or more aspects. And continuing to burn coal is for all practical purposes up in soot.


Solar panels, while highly efficient in cold environments such as Longyearbyen’s, are also subject to problems such as snow burial. Photo by Thema / Multiconsult.

A government-ordered assessment of future long-term power options for Longyearbyen concludes liquid natural gas (possibly supplemented by solar cells) or pellets are the best options. But the report by the consulting companies Thema and Multiconsult notes there is considerable uncertainty about all the alternatives considered and the government is calling the report merely the beginning of a long-term process.

“The investigation gives us an initial overview of the various possibilities, and we will now consider the relevant energy solutions,” Minister of Petroleum and Energy Terje Søviknes said in a prepared statement after the report the ministry requested was released earlier this month.

Longyearbyen’s electricity has long come from coal, but the supply of it in Mine 7 – the only and almost certainly last Norwegian-controlled mine operating in Svalbard – is expected to be tapped within 10 to 15 years. Furthermore, Norway is bound by climate policy commitments, so the report is based on agreements by many local and national officials an alternative future source is necessary.

The assessment considers the supply reliability, sustainability, greenhouse gas emissions and cost-effectiveness, with gas listed in two of the top three alternatives. One of those options include combining gas with solar panels, which in tests and practical usage have shown to be exceptionally efficient due to Longyearbyen’s chilly temperatures compared to most of the planet (although the town’s extreme daylight/night cycles obviously limit the months the panels can be used).

The third top-tier option is wood pellets, which the report states would be cheaper and have less of an environmental impact that gas, but also a higher cost and greater uncertainty in terms of securing and storing the pellets.

Longyearbyen’s far north location and conditions actor heavily of the drawbacks listed for each of the alternatives considered. There are “great uncertainties” about the requires for a harbor facility capable of handling gas supplies, for example. Solar panels, in addition to being useless during the dark months, also are at risk of being buried or damaged by heavy snow and extreme weather. Biofuels have high costs and high uncertainty since they would rely on a single supplier.

The report also evaluated a carbon capture facility to reduce emissions for both gas and a “null” alternative of continuing to burn coal, but in both cases concluded there are high costs and other uncertainties associated with such a facility.

The report places the alternatives in three categories, from most to least attractive:

Category 1
• Gas without carbon capture storage to reduce emissions.
• Pellets.
• Combination of solar/gas.

Category 2
• Gas with carbon capture storage.
• Combination of wind/solar w/ battery backup.
• Combination of wind/gas.

Category 3
• Coal with carbon capture storage.
• Biofuels.
• Wind/solar/hydrogen combination.
• Cable attached to mainland power source.

Longyearbyen Mayor Arild Olsen told NRK the report is a welcome first step since the existing coal plant is difficult to maintain and expensive for locals who have seen their power bills skyrocket in recent years.

“I am not hung up in what kind of option is chosen,” he said. “We are just glad that the investigation is done and that it points in a direction.”

But some local politicians said they are disappointed the assessment is essentially a straightforward cost/benefit analysis without considering Longyearbyen’s unique status in terms of policy and potential for researching alternatives.

“That should have been in the report,” Deputy Mayor Erik Berger told Svalbardposten. “Svalbard as a test society and showcase is an attraction for many and is definitely an important policy area for the nation of Norway.”