Indigenous communities across Canada are leading the charge toward a renewable energy future as technology advances and networking opportunities are fostered.
The successes and advancements are on full display this week at the Indigenous Clean Energy gathering (held virtually this year).
Darrell Brown, a Winnipeg-based Cree entrepreneur, chairs the ICE executive board. He was thrilled to see the community come together in support as different First Nations get started down the path of sustainability.
"It’s come a long way. The communities get it now. They see what everyone’s doing," Brown said.
Brown started his business, Kisik Clean Energy, last year to support Indigenous development of hydro, solar, wind, biomass, geothermal, and microgrid technologies. He’s worked in the clean energy industry for five years, and had a hand in developing the renewable energy project at Kiashke Zaaging Anishinaabek (Gull Bay First Nation) in northwestern Ontario.
The KZA project involved solar power and battery storage in a microgrid distribution system developed to reduce the community’s reliance on diesel fuel as a power source. The First Nation is not connected to the provincial power grid.
AJ Esquega, KZA energy projects co-ordinator, explained the technologies don’t allow the elimination of diesel as such yet, but the First Nation has lowered its use by approximately 25 per cent (some 120,000 litres per year).
One project is positive, Brown said, but it’s even better to see other communities be inspired by these successes.
Sayisi Dene First Nation, on the shores of Tadoule Lake in northern Manitoba, 250 kilometres west of Churchill, is one of the off-grid communities looking to take the leap into renewables.
Empowerment is a big part of the equation. "They feel like they’re taking care of their land, taking care of their water, and the wildlife and that goes with their beliefs. Everything you do with renewable energy and reducing fossil fuels it does with the whole belief system. It’s what all of us Indigenous people believe, taking care of Mother Earth," Brown said.
Other benefits include new job opportunities, lowering greenhouse gas emissions, lowering environmental risk associated with fuel storage, and an improvement of health outcomes (the burning of diesel is linked to negative health impacts).
Even communities that are hooked into provincial grids, such as Fisher River Cree Nation in central Manitoba, are investing in renewables to avoid the high cost of power. This summer, the community unveiled the largest solar farm in the province, with excess energy sold back into Manitoba Hydro’s grid.
The three Indigenous communities on the doorstep of the oilsands in northern Alberta — Mikisew Cree First Nation, Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, and Fort Chipewyan Métis Association — are operating the largest solar farm in the country. (It began operations in November 2020.)
The success of each community is levied off one another, Brown said.
"We’re limited with our resources in our isolated communities. So, when you pool it together, that’s where the value comes from because you have people in each community that are wanting the same thing for their own community," said Vince Robinson, clean energy co-ordinator at Nuxalk Nation, in B.C.
"It seems like there’s at least five questions every day that pop up, where you don’t even know how you would go about answering those questions. And then, the ICE network is there, almost like a big brother."
Robinson, Brown and Esquega all benefited from an Indigenous clean energy mentorship program called 20/20 Catalysts, which continues to bring forth new graduates each year and is part of the ICE network.
The online conference continues today. Sessions can be attended free of charge (icegathering.com).
Sarah Lawrynuik reports on climate change for the Winnipeg Free Press. Funding for the Free Press climate change reporter comes from the Government of Canada through the Local Journalism Initiative.