For millennia, Inuit people camped on an inlet on Baffin Island to harvest the gifts of the sea. They called it Iqaluit, the “place of many fish”.
In August 1576, English explorer and pirate Sir Martin Frobisher sailed here, looking for gold and the Northwest Passage. He took home 200 tonnes of worthless ore and left behind five sailors, whose fate remains a mystery.
The relentless ice
Then, not much happened for a long time – besides the fishing and the relentless crunching of the ice that forms each autumn and breaks up and washes out to sea each brief summer.
During the Second World War, someone drew a line across a map and pinpointed this as a convenient refuelling base for Allied aircraft. The base was set up 70 years ago and called Frobisher Bay after the inlet.
A quarter-century ago, it was officially re-named Iqaluit. In the 1990s, the quickly-growing town was chosen as the capital of Nunavut Territory, a mind-boggling two million square kilometres of wilderness. This has brought an influx of government-related jobs at the same time as prospecting and mining have boomed in Nunavut.
On the right track
Frobisher was wrong about the Northwest Passage, but it turns out he was on the right track in his quest for gold.
“They’ve pretty much got everything up there in Nunavut: gold, copper, iron ore, diamonds, oil, gas and valuable metals such as molybdenum, even potentially uranium,” says Mark Kennedy, Business Development Manager for Power Plants, Wärtsilä Canada.
While the mining and drilling projects are scattered around Nunavut, the capital is the logistical and administrative centre for operations, boosting the local economy. Iqaluit has recently been designated as a point of hire and transport hub for the Mary River project of Baffinland Iron Mines Corporation.
This massive open-pit iron mine is expected to yield 365 million tonnes of high-grade ore and is set to become one of Canada’s largest mines. The 4 bn. dollar project received preliminary approval this autumn despite concerns over its impact on wildlife, archaeological sites and traditional lifestyles.
An embarrassing blackout
All this activity is bringing people to Iqaluit, swelling the population to some eight thousand. It has also brought a spike in demand for electricity, which is where Wärtsilä comes in.
“The existing plant, which was built on a hill overlooking the town in the 1960s, is starting to see breakdowns and unplanned maintenance, meaning outages,” says Kennedy.
“In fact, a couple of years ago there was a blackout while the prime minister was visiting. It might have been a little embarrassing, but it probably helped to get budget approval for some more power generation.”
With a need to replace aging infrastructure and increase generating capacity to meet demand from the growing community, the Nunavut government utility, Qulliq Energy Corporation, put out a tender for 10MW of new generating capacity to expand Iqaluit’s power plant.
Formulated for extreme cold
Wärtsilä was awarded a contract to supply two 5.2 MW generator sets, which will run on arctic diesel fuel, specially formulated for extreme cold. Wärtsilä has also provided auxiliaries such as radiators, tanks and start air compressors.
“The upgrading and expansion of the existing facility are necessary to keep up with the demand of the rapidly-growing capital,” explains Qulliq’s Director of Engineering, Stephen Kerr.
“The two new Wärtsilä 32 engines will be a welcome addition to the existing engine line-up. We anticipate that they will help to improve overall plant reliability and efficiency after start-up in March or April 2013.”
The sets were delivered in August 2012 – easier said than done.
“Iqaluit is a fascinating place, where about 60 percent of the population are indigenous,” says Kennedy. “Accommodation and food are quite expensive, since they have to air freight most things. There’s no local food production apart from hunting and fishing.”
The restaurants serve local seafood, particularly arctic char. “Many of the guys hunt a lot, caribou and seal. Even whale: when I was there last year they harpooned a bowhead and everyone went to get a chunk.”
It had been the first whale hunted in a century, with a special permit granted after the bowhead population rebounded. The 70-tonne, 14-metre whale’s meat and blubber were shared among hundreds of people.
Iqaluit offers about a half-dozen places to stay, two schools, an igloo-shaped church, a museum, art galleries and the Nunavut legislative assembly. In 2010, it hosted a G7 Finance Ministers’ meeting that is remembered for the boycott by European ministers of a banquet featuring raw seal meat.
The town’s nearest sizeable neighbour is Nuuk, the capital of Greenland, 800 km across the Labrador Sea. It’s an hour and a quarter away by air. Toronto is four hours distant.
Road to nowhere
Apart from air travel, the only way in or out of Iqaluit is by sea, which is usually ice-locked eight months of the year. There are no roads leading anywhere.
One road that trails out of town into the tundra is called Road to Nowhere. After that, you’re on your own. You’d better have a dogsled or snowmobile, a satellite phone, a GPS and polar bear deterrents.
Here above the tree line, the permanently-frozen landscape is rocky and barren with only low scrubby bushes. Although it’s on roughly the same latitude as Vaasa on the west coast of Finland, the lack of a Gulf Stream means that the climate is more severe.
Snow may fall in any month of the year, though it averages less than a centimetre in July and August. In the autumn, there’s an average accumulation of more than a centimetre a day. Summer temperatures typically range between zero and +12˚C while winter lows can plunge to -45˚C, driven by winds of over 100 kilometres an hour.
No place like Nom
“When I first visited Iqaluit last December for our engineering meetings and plant visits, it was snow-covered with no trees and a strong cold wind,” recalls Wärtsilä Project Manager Kenneth Hägg.
“Iqaluit reminded me very much of Nome, Alaska, where my team had a power plant project several years ago. I was surprised that it felt so familiar, because Nome is more than 3000 km away.”
Accompanying him was Wärtsilä Transport Manager Oskar Granqvist, who would play a key role in bringing in the new equipment.
“When we arrived, it was around -25˚C. But the wind was quite strong, so it was cold even for a Finn! In midwinter the days are very short, so it was tough to take measurements outside. The beach was completely covered with ice, so we couldn’t imagine how it would look when we arrived with our equipment in late summer,” he says.
“When I came back for the discharge operation on August 9, the scenery was completely different: no snow and very bright. There were still small ‘icebergs’ on the beach, but nothing compared to wintertime. But the ice would still cause problems for our operation.”
No port facility
In its contract, Wärtsilä had agreed to deliver all of the equipment directly to the plant site.
“That was tricky because Iqaluit lacks a port facility that could bring in such heavy equipment,” explains Kennedy. The generating sets weigh around 95 metric tonnes each.
“We decided to bring a vessel with lift equipment from Finland, and anchor it out in Frobisher Bay. The generating sets would then be transferred in the bay onto a barge that could carry them into Iqaluit.”
But there was another obstacle. Frobisher Bay has tidal shifts of up to 11 metres a day; reputedly the world’s most dramatic after the Bay of Fundy. So the plan was to bring the barge in at high tide, then wait for the water to go out, leaving the barge beached on the sand.
Then the crew would have about 6 hours to drive the generating sets off the barge and up the beach on a huge truck.
The M/V Traveller was ready to leave Finland and a 50-year-old tug named Molly was poised to pull the barge up from Lake Ontario.
But on August 1, the Canadian Broadcasting Company reported that “Iqaluit’s shores are blocked with ice, stretching about 200 kilometres out into Frobisher Bay, keeping hunters and campers stuck in the city. The build-up of ice is the result of southerly winds pushing it inland. The ice that’s coming in is old, hard, and tricky to navigate through...”
The next day, the superintendent of the Canadian Coastguard’s Arctic Field Operations emailed: “This is an extraordinary year. Any wind will build pressure up and it would be very difficult for the barge or a light ice class vessel to get in.
“The beach landing is not suitable for your operations at this time. The ice moved in Tuesday and it is still coming in.”
The winds turn
Usually by that time of the year, the ice has cleared in Frobisher Bay, pushed out into the open ocean by the prevailing winds. Now for first time in 20 or 30 years, the winds were going in the wrong direction, from the southeast, pushing the ice back into the bay.
“We were about to send our ship from Finland and the barge and then the Coast Guard told us that no vessels could come into Iqaluit because of unseasonably high ice, more than had ever been experienced before in summer,” says Kennedy.
“Also the temperatures had been far lower than usual, so the ice hadn’t melted as much. We had to postpone the departures of the two vessels.”
When Wärtsilä finally got the go-ahead to bring the equipment in, a coastguard icebreaker still had to help the ship get through the ice to rendezvous with the Molly, which was anchored 3 km off the beach.
Support from the community
“We had great help from the Coastguard,” says Granqvist. “We met at least once a day while the vessel was entering Frobisher Bay in order to plan the operation. Especially when the vessel got stuck in the ice, we couldn’t have got into the unloading position without assistance from their icebreakers.”
The transport manager praises the “excellent” support from the local community during this nerve-wracking operation.
“Everyone helped as much as they possibly could. Since blackouts had been a problem, people were pleased to see new equipment arriving. And of course our end customer assisted us by giving us the right contacts in the community for tasks such as lifting cables.”
“I knew that the weather would be a challenge, but Mother Nature really tested us more than I ever could have expected.”
Just when the vessel was through the ice and ready for unloading, the wind picked up again. “I thought it was too risky to start the operation in the wind and swell so we stopped it,” Granqvist recalls. “We had to wait another 10-12 hours until it had died down.”
During the discharge of the barge it was also raining quite hard. “This slowed down the operation. Safety always comes first when you’re moving this kind of equipment. It means sometimes we just need to take time out and wait for the weather to improve.”
With the equipment on the foundation at the site, Qulliq Energy had to work quickly before the weather worsened again. In effect the utility had to build a plant annex around the new generators, with assistance from Wärtsilä, before the full onslaught of winter in October.
“The transport of the equipment, while challenging, was only one aspect of the project. Much work still remains,” says Kennedy.
“The project has gone very well thanks to good teamwork between the experienced Qulliq staff and the Wärtsilä project team. We fully expect this to continue through to commissioning and successful operation of the plant.”
“Fortunately the winds let up enough for just that 2-3 day period to let the ship get into Iqaluit to deliver the generating sets and ancillary equipment,” says Kerr. “After the ship departed, the ice returned.”
With the equipment on the foundation at the site, Qulliq Energy began the task of building an annex around the two generating sets.
“There have been a few challenges in getting information and exchanging specifications, and so on, given the distance and time differences.” says Kerr. “But things overall have gone well so far.”
Wärtsilä Transport Manager
Oskar Granqvist’s daily reports
10 August 4:49
“Today the barge carrying the transport equipment and the US/Canada-supplied equipment was unloaded at the beach. An icebreaker has left Iqaluit to assist the vessel carrying the generating sets and rest of the equipment. The vessel is struggling in the ice outside Iqaluit. It’s estimated that it will take the icebreaker 15-20 hours to reach the vessel and then the same number of hours will be needed to assist the vessel in to Iqaluit. However this is all in the hands of Mother Nature.”
11 August 23:51
“The vessel is on its way in to Iqaluit and has given ETA 03:00 Sunday. The icebreaker that is assisting the vessel was called out for a medivac and therefore there has been a delay. We’ll go out with the customs officers tomorrow at 06:00 at the same time as the barge is prepared so that we can start the operation as soon as the customs inspection is done.”
13 August 5:17
“The custom officers went out today at 06:00. The barge was not allowed alongside before customs inspection was done. We arrived at 08:00 alongside. However I took the decision not to start the discharge. Last night the M/V Traveller tried to anchor closer to the beach, but didn’t succeed, so they were forced to anchor further out. The spot where they anchored is more affected by swell and at 08:00 this morning I didn’t consider the situation to be safe enough for unloading.
At 18:00 I gave the green light to start the discharge as the swell had come down. Both generating sets were safely unloaded. We’ll try to land the barge on the beach tonight, but unfortunately the tide will be very low so there’s a big risk that we won’t succeed. Most likely we’ll have to wait until the next high tide, tomorrow afternoon, to beach the barge.”
14 August 20:39
“Today both Iqaluit generating sets were delivered to the site. The equipment is safely off the ship, successfully barged and delivered up the beach, through town and to the power plant.”
16 August 2:29
“The first genset is in its final position. The other will be placed into its final position tomorrow. The ice situation is now really bad here, so we got the equipment unloaded on the right days.”
IQALUIT IS USUALLY ICE-LOCKED EIGHT MONTHS OF THE YEAR. THIS YEAR ITS SHORES WERE STILL BLOCKED WITH ICE IN AUGUST.
VIGILANT IN ROUGH WEATHER: WHEN THE WIND PICKED UP, UNLOADING WAS INTERRUPTED.