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Voters armed with questions
Yellowknifers gather to get answers about the proposed Con Mine community energy system

Nicole Veerman
Northern News Services
Published Friday, February 25, 2011

SOMBA K'E/YELLOWKNIFE - About 35 Yellowknifers, armed with questions about the city's proposed Con Mine community energy system, congregated at Northern United Place Wednesday night to get some answers.

"What is the worst case scenario when or if it is to fail?" asked one women. "We ran into that with the Deh Cho Bridge. I think there has to be a worst case scenario, and I think we have a right to know that."

In response, Bob Long, the city's senior administrative officer, who was in the hot seat for the evening, said if something goes wrong, utility rates would increase.

"The people that are hooked up to the utility would have to pay an increased rate until the utility makes whatever obligations it has to make," he said.

Earlier in the presentation he assured residents that there was no way the burden would land on taxpayers because the $60-million project will be revenue-funded - over 30 years, the loan for the project will be repaid by energy sales.

The proposed project, if completed, could heat 39 downtown buildings with a mixture of wood-pellet boilers and geothermal heat from the earth beneath the now defunct Con Mine.

When asked about the number of customers that have actually signed onto the project, Long said there aren't yet any contracts, but there is significant interest.

"I've got to about 60 per cent of the load who have confirmed to me quite clearly that they are in support of this project. They believe that the finances of this project are issues which we will deal with as we go forward," he said. "They'll be happy to, at the appropriate time, sign up and hook up to this system."

Taylor Zeeg, an associate for Vancouver-based Compass Resource Management, who made the city's business analysis report, said the project won't go ahead without clear support and interest from customers.

"One thing we don't do is go out and build the whole asset, hope it works and then go out and find customers," he said. "We go out and find out what kind of appetite there is for the energy, we enter into clear indication from them that they're interested in a long-term supply contract, then we go and do due diligence on the asset, (and) we build the asset to meet the demand that we've secured."

With questions about the worst case scenario and customer sign-up covered, residents changed gears and asked about how the project will affect regular taxpayers.

"How much will fuel increase for everyone else?" asked one resident, who suggested prices will increase because of a loss of business for fuel companies in the downtown core.

Mark Henry, the city's energy coordinator, told the crowd that prices won't increase because there will be more competition between the three fuel providers in the city, which, if anything, should decrease the cost.

The city is holding public meetings so residents are prepared to vote in a referendum being held March 14.

Voters will be asked to give the city permission to borrow up to $49 million for the project. If residents vote in favour of the city borrowing, it doesn't mean it will occur; it will just give the city permission to move forward with the project, and it will ensure a $14.1 million grant from the federal government for the geothermal portion of the project.

After the meeting, Kevin MacIntyre, a long time Yellowknifer, said he feels like he is being rushed into the vote.

"We don't have enough information to approve it," he said while flipping the pages of the 90-page business analysis report for the project.

"Why are you asking us now, when you admit that you're not ready?" he asked of the city, suggesting it is asking for permission before considering all angles of the project.

"Usually financing goes the other way. 'I've done the plan and here's how it's going to work.'

"If more work was done in advance, I would feel more comfortable."

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