Surging Indigenous renewable projects lead shift to clean energy future

Remote communities across Canada are pursuing opportunities in renewables that reduce reliance on dirty, expensive diesel

Illustration by Luke Swinson

Mounting an Indigenous-led clean energy project in Canada’s remote communities takes a special kind of resilience, as best intentions meet the harsh reality of permitting delays, construction deadlines and difficult negotiations with governments and local utilities.

At a recent Gathering of Indigenous Clean Energy (ICE), Nihtat Energy Ltd. president Grant Sullivan gave a master class on the challenges and rewards of installing solar panels in off-grid Nihtat Gwich’in communities in the Northwest Territories.

In two separate projects, Nihtat Energy – a Nihtat Gwich’in development corporation – installed solar panels to provide electricity to the Mackenzie Hotel and the Northmart grocery store in Inuvik. Now, Sullivan is working on two projects that will feed solar power into local diesel-fired grids owned by NWT Power Corp. that serve Aklavik and Inuvik.

In his presentation to the Gathering, Sullivan stressed the need for project developers to plan for delays that can quickly drain resources and upend business cases. The ICE Gathering in January drew more than 700 registrants from Indigenous communities and organizations, as well as utilities, governments and the private sector.

Remote communities across the country are pursuing opportunities in renewables that can reduce reliance on dirty, expensive, often-unreliable diesel. They’re developing capacity in energy efficiency, sustainable transport and bioenergy – projects that provide healthy communities, create wealth and jobs, and empower Indigenous people to govern.

Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) has stepped up with significant funding for remote communities. Its Clean Energy for Rural and Remote Communities (CERRC) program has invested $220 million in 88 projects to help communities move away from using diesel by developing cleaner community-led energy projects.

In December, the Liberal government provided another $300 million to the effort. In March, NRCan announced more than $40 million for the Clarke Lake Geothermal Development Project in northeastern British Columbia, which is jointly owned by the Fort Nelson First Nation and Saulteau First Nation. Fort Nelson FN chief Sharleen Gale said in a release that her community’s persistence in pursuing the geothermal facility “demonstrates what Indigenous leadership towards net-zero project development looks like.”

Update: Monday's federal budget announced an additional $36 million for clean energy projects in First Nations, Inuit and Métis communities.

ICE has called for Ottawa to allocate $500 million to a fund that can be used to catalyze Indigenous-led clean energy projects. Such efforts offer not only environmental benefits such as reduced greenhouse gas emissions, but also opportunity for real economic and social benefits that set the stage for reconciliation by partnering with Indigenous communities to develop clean energy assets that are in line with Indigenous values and affirm Indigenous Peoples as the owners and caretakers of the lands.

Indigenous communities have been significantly involved in some 197 clean energy projects in Canada that generate more than 1 megawatt of power, as well as in smaller-scale efforts.

Indigenous communities are the largest clean energy asset owners, apart from Crown and private utilities, and are a powerful force for change in the country’s transition to a clean energy future.

The projects run the gamut from Nihtat Energy’s 99-kilowatt solar system for Inuvik’s Mackenzie Hotel to a $1.9-billion Wataynikaneyap transmission project that will connect 24 Northern Ontario First Nations communities to the grid. The Watay project is jointly owned by the coalition of First Nations, Fortis Inc. and other private investors.

Indigenous communities have been significantly involved in 197 clean energy projects in Canada .

They are the largest clean energy asset owners,

apart from the Crown and private utilities.

Originally from the Beaufort Delta region and now living in Whitehorse, Sullivan is an alumnus of ICE’s 20/20 Catalysts program. Each year, a group of Indigenous leaders get a crash course in clean energy project management and connect with like-minded people from communities across the country.

The program “was my starting point of my education how to work with utilities and the language they want to hear,” Sullivan says in a phone interview.

For the ICE Gathering, Sullivan spoke from his living room to an online audience that reached from coast to coast to coast. He spoke on a day when Natural Resources Minister Seamus O’Regan announced that Sullivan had been awarded $800,000, under the Indigenous Off-Diesel Initiative, to carry on the next phase of his work in Inuvik.

One of the biggest challenges for his grid-connected projects was negotiating a power-purchase agreement with NWT Power, which runs the diesel-fuelled microgrids in the towns. NWT Power has been supportive but also has to ensure the reliability of its own system – and that the addition of an independent power source doesn’t undermine its own business case. Negotiating an agreement with a utility can take as long as the construction phase, Sullivan said.

“The key lesson learned is that the best-laid plans face so many delays in the project that you just don’t expect to happen,” he told listeners. “And the real impact of the delays is a loss of revenue and a loss of savings.” The key to success, he said, is building in cushions that can account for contingencies and maintaining open and honest communications with partners.

Last November, three Indigenous communities of Fort Chipewyan commissioned the Three Nations Energy (3NE) solar farm, a $7.7-million, 2.2-megawatt project that they describe as the largest solar installation in a remote community in Canada. The 6,000 photovoltaic panels – plus another 1,500 panels owned by local grid operator ATCO Group – will displace 800,000 litres of diesel, or about 25% of the community’s needs.

3NE is owned by the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, the Mikisew Cree First Nation and the Fort Chipewyan Métis Association. The project grew out of the communities’ realization that their growing populations required additional energy infrastructure and their determination to ensure they participated fully in solutions, 3NE president Jason Schulz said in an interview. Schulz also serves as executive director of Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation’s strategic advisory services.

“Fort Chip” is a community of roughly 900 people, 225 kilometres north of Fort McMurray, Alberta. It is reachable only by air or small boat in summer and over temporary ice roads in winter. The diesel it needs must be trucked in during the weeks when the ice roads are operational, a period that is, on average, getting shorter because of climate change.

Across the country, the Nunatsiavut Inuit government is partnering with Natural Forces, an independent power producer based in Nova Scotia, on a 2.3-megawatt wind and battery project that would displace up to a third of the diesel used for power in Nain, the northernmost community in Newfoundland and Labrador. The Nain project is in early stages of engineering, and with its negotiations with Newfoundland and Labrador Hydro.

The capital cost of renewable energy projects in remote communities is typically far higher than in the south. Where wind can run $2 million per megawatt of installed capacity in southern Canada, the Nain development will run at least $5 million per installed megawatt, says Nick Mercer, Nunatsiavut Government’s regional energy coordinator.

Still, the wind project should pay for itself over its lifetime, with the benefit of keeping some of the revenue in the community. A key challenge: negotiating with Newfoundland and Labrador Hydro, which has a mandate from government to reduce subsidies for remote communities.

Another 20/20 Catalysts alumnus, AJ Esquega, has led an effort to add a solar-based system to the existing diesel-fuelled grid at Kiashke Zaaging Anishinaabek (KZA), also known as Gull Bay First Nation, in northwestern Ontario.

Their Giizis Energy solar storage project is a game-changer. It’s 100% First Nations–owned, by the KZA, in partnership with Ontario Power Generation, the developer. KZA is the first remote community in Canada to produce renewable solar energy and store it in batteries, which connect directly with the diesel system to reduce the amount of diesel fuel used.

Billed as the country’s largest fully integrated remote renewable-energy storage microgrid, the system was commissioned in the summer of 2019 and has been running since. The full asset transfer to Gull Bay is scheduled to be signed off in early March.

Esquega says that participating in 20/20 Catalysts helped prepare him for the realities of project management in a remote community. These capacity-building initiatives ensure Indigenous people continue to lead Canada’s transition to a more equitable, zero-carbon economy. With Ottawa’s support, we can catalyze more investment in planet-powered projects for a genuinely sustainable clean energy future.

Shawn McCarthy is an Ottawa-based writer who focuses on climate change and the low-carbon energy economy.

Terri Lynn Morrison is director of strategic partnerships and communications at Indigenous Clean Energy and a Mi’gmaq from Listuguj, Quebec.

A version of this article appears in the Spring Issue of Corporate Knights Magazine as part of our Indigenous Economy Rising cover series. 

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