And again, it is about energy, far from the first time on these pages. It is an important debate in Longyearbyen, has been so for a while and this won’t change at any time soon.
Last autumn, Longyearbyen’s old and outdated coal power plant was finally shut down and replaced with diesel generators which now supply the approximately 2,500 inhabitants, companies and infrastructure with electricity and long-distance heating.
It is feared that tripling the price may well force companies to close and population to leave.
Part of the technical challenge is that, in contrast to “normal” places, it is not possible to link Longyearbyen’s energy infrastructure to a larger regional network. It is not possible to use anything that already exists in the area, because Longyearbyen is completely isolated and far away from the rest of the world.
But this is a challenge that Longyearbyen shares with hundreds of other small places all over the Arctic. Good reason for doing research about possible solutions to find out what the future energy of the Arctic might look like.
Isfjord Radio at Kapp Linné: former station for coastal radio and communication,
now wilderness hotel and laboratory for energy solutions in isolated places.
Such research is being done at Kapp Linné, the location of the old radio station Isfjord Radio. The radio and other communication infrastructure are not in use anymore since Svalbard is connected to mainland Norway with a glass fibre cable. But the buildings have been used for a wilderness hotel since the late 1990s. The owner of the place is the Store Norske Spitsbergen Kulkompani (short Store Norske or SNSK), mostly known as the Norwegian coal mining company that ran the mines in Longyearbyen (still operative) and Sveagruva (closed). The hotel is run by Basecamp Spitsbergen.
The place has several characteristics that make it suitable as a laboratory to test energy solutions: it is very small with with only a small handfull of people as a “permament” population, and even when hotel capacities are fully used the population increases to only a few dozen people. There are no other consumers.
The point is not to develop completely new technology, but to establish systems where the components are all based on existing technology which in itself is tried and tested. Central control and battery systems are considered essential. In a first phase, a photovoltaic system installed in 2023 stands for a large part of the energy requirement. This may surprise in an area that does not get any sunlight at all for about 4 months per year. But the hotel is closed during the dark period, and then, a block of batteries and a heat storage tank can buffer at least some of the variations. Diesel generators take care of the rest, but this is already enough to reduce the diesel consumption by 70 %, as Store Norske told Svalbardposten.
In the next phase, wind power is expected to increase the fraction of renewable energies in the total mix to 90 %, but this is still matter of negotiations with authorities. There are legal obstacles as Isfjord Radio is a protected cultural heritage site and there is a bird sanctuary right next to it.
An energy supply of 100 % renewables is, with current knowledge and technology, not possible. This would require a regional energy network that does not exist. In fully isolated places, a backup of diesel generators will be required to guarantee energy supply at any time, but these at some stage may be run with biofuels or hydrogene. But this is currently merely a dream of the future. On the other hand, a diesel reduction of 70 % with the prospect of a further reduction to 90 % appears as a good success.
The idea is to use the knowledge thus established elsewhere, in Longyearbyen and other places in the Arctic. Longyearbyen already has a couple of smaller photovoltaic systems, the largest one so far is at the airport.
And other places are also interested: despite the political ice age, the Russians in Barentsburg have already contacted the community in Longyearbyen and expressed the desire to establish a dialogue to exchange knowledge about sustainable local energy solutions, a desire generally met with benevolence in Longyearbyen.
Large amounts of important and valuable minerals are expected in these areas, including 38 million tons of copper, 45 million tons of zinc, 185 million tons of manganese, 229.300 tons of lithium and many more. These figures are actually rough estimates quoted from a government strategy paper (Melding til Stortinget 25), the exact size of potential occurrences is unknown as the ocean floor in general. The paper emphasises the strategic value of these minerals for renewable energies and batteries and dependencies on global markets.
Both Norwegian and international environmentalists oppose to deep sea mining. Ocean floors are the largest still almost completely areas of planet Earth. Scientists expect high biodiversity and unknown ecosystems in the deep sea, which may suffer severely from deep sea mining. They also fear significant negative consequences, amongst others, on the ability of the oceans and ocean floors to accumulate and store the greenhouse gas CO2 and impact of mining on marine wildlife such as whales.
There are so far no international regulations for deep sea mining. The International Seabed Authority (ISA) works on such regulations, but a result is not expected before 2025.
The dark sky above Spitsbergen was lit by a pretty spectacular light for s short moment on December 21, a sight that didn’t require additional alcohol or drugs to make one think of an UFO or something like that. Andreas Eriksson who works for KSAT, the company running the satellite antenntas on Platåberg behind the airport, managed to take several photos that subsequently appeared on KSAT’s social media pages. Additionally, an automatic camera of the Kjell Henriksen Observatoriums in Adventdalen took an impressive video (click here to access the video on the website of the observatoriums; the gist of the matter comes after ca. 15 seconds).
Light phenomenon on the sky above Spitsbergen. Photo taken by Andreas Eriksson/KSAT.
The photos caused much speculation what it actually might have been. Amongst others it was suggested that it was Santa Claus trying out a new sledge. If so, it must have been a bit of a hot rod.
Meanwhile, information has surfaced that reveals the real nature of the light. The true explanation, as described by the Barents Observer is a Russian military rocket with “military infrastructure”. It is not known what this “infrastructure” actually is.
In contrast to earlier outbreaks of the Avian flu such as in 2014-15, the current outbreak seems to be long-lived and the virus seems capable of long-term survival in wildlife populations including mammals. The current virus has already had severe impacts on seabird populations in north Norway, where mainly kittiwakes were affected, as well as a large kittiwake colony on the island of Hopen which is part of the Norwegian Svalbard archipelago. The virus is also found in the Southern Ocean, including the Falkland Islands and South Georgia; in South America, it killed large numbers of wild animals including not only seabirds but also sea lions, mainly in Chile and Peru, as reported e.g. by the WOAH (World Organization for Animal Health).
The health risk for humans is described as “very low”, but the Avian influenza virus has to be considered a long-lived threat for wildlife populations that are already under pressure from climate change and, in many cases, other threats.