For remote indigenous communities across Canada, the lack of clean, reliable energy is a major contributor to the grinding poverty that is a part of everyday life.

Some 200 communities in the country are not connected to an electricity grid and must rely on diesel generators for their power. They experience blackouts, fuel spills and a shortage of capacity that frustrates growth and development plans. While subsidized, the diesel is expensive – especially when warm winters melt ice roads and limit the ability of communities to truck in their fuel supply.

Governments at various levels are now working with indigenous leaders and energy companies to find new solutions to end that energy poverty. Federal, provincial and territorial ministers are due to meet in January with the various partners to come up with a joint plan to clear away institutional barriers to projects that would provide reliable electricity.

Despite the challenges, many projects are proceeding – ranging from a $1-billion transmission project in Northwestern Ontario, to microgrids fuelled by diesel-and-solar hybrid systems in British Columbia, to an indigenous-supported hydroelectric project in Quebec. Communities in the Far North are looking to wind and solar – even geothermal – to complement their existing diesel systems.

As it has been across the world, electrification is considered a necessary – though far from sufficient – tool for improving lives of people living in remote, poor communities.

Margaret Kenequanash is chairwoman of Wataynikaneyap Power LP, a partnership of 22 First Nations along with Fortis Inc. and Renewable Energy Systems Inc. (RES), on a $1.35-billion project to bring transmission lines to far-flung Northwest Ontario communities.

Many of the Wataynikaneyap partners have aging generators that are running at full capacity, said Ms. Kenequanash, who is also executive director of the Shibogama First Nations Council, which represents five OjiCree-speaking communities that are experiencing significant population growth.

“If they don’t get reliable power, there will continued concerns about being able to connect the [new] houses, therefore affecting the daily living conditions of our people – the health and safety, never mind the ability to pursue further business or economic benefits,” she said.

Currently, most off-grid communities rely on major utility companies for large diesel generators that provide limited power – but no heat – to band facilities and houses. Project proponents insist there is a solid business case to replace that diesel with transmission lines where feasible, and to build hybrid systems that include hydro or solar in the communities that are just too far from the grid.

The Wataynikaneyap project, which is currently undergoing regulatory review, would provide a net savings of $1-billion in diesel costs over 40 years, said Scott Hawkes, president of FortisOntario Inc., which has an equity stake and is managing the project. It would also provide energy infrastructure for communities with growing populations that frequently see multiple families crowding into houses, uninterrupted electricity to water and sewage treatment facilities, and allow people to have refrigeration to maintain food safety.

“These are things that we take for granted,” Mr. Hawkes said. “For these communities, [the transmission project] would provide a glimmer of hope for some economic development.”

Assuming the partners win regulatory approval and obtain financing, the Wataynikaneyap project will be built in two stages. The first phase will see a 300-kilometre transmission line constructed to Pickle Lake, Ont. The second phase will include two lines, covering a total of 1,500 kilometres through virgin boreal forest and connecting 17 remote communities. (Five other equity partners are already connected to the grid.)

It is scheduled for completion in 2023.

Fortis and RES currently own 49 per cent and the First Nations partners own 51 per cent, with the plan to increase that stake to 100 per cent over time. The Ontario Energy Board is now reviewing the proposal, but the provincial government designated it as a priority project, which should clear the way for approval.

The partners are also in talks with the federal and provincial governments over the financing, as they need commitments that the subsidies now paid for the diesel system will be provided to the transmission company. With those commitments in hand, the partners will be able to obtain private-sector financing for construction.

However, Wataynikaneyap partners face a challenge from two Northwestern Ontario First Nations communities that had mounted a competing bid but lost out when the province chose the Fortis-backed group.

Those reserves – Mishkeegogamang and Ojibway Nation of Saugeen – are now demanding that Wataynikaneyap Power negotiate impact benefit agreements with them before the transmission line can cross their traditional territory.

Few remote communities have the proximity to the grid – or the regional density of population – to justify transmission projects. Among those that are too far away from the grid, there are numerous projects under way to replace diesel power either entirely with a renewable source such as hydro, or with a hybrid renewable-diesel system.

Governments can take some key steps to accelerate the pace, said Chris Henderson, president of Ottawa-based Lumos Energy, which works with indigenous communities to develop clean-energy projects.

Lumos Energy is currently working with Inuit village of Inukjuak on the shores of Hudson Bay in Quebec on a $100-million, 7.5-megawatt hydroelectric project that Mr. Henderson billed as the largest off-grid diesel replacement project in the country. The project developer is InnerGex Renewable Energy Inc., a publicly traded firm from Longueuil, Que.

Canada should have a standard approach to establishing “avoided costs” – the cost of diesel fuel, operation and maintenance of the generators and other costs that will not be incurred if a clean-energy project is built. That calculation is key to the regulatory approval and financing of projects.

Mr. Henderson said governments and stakeholders need to boost the capacity of local indigenous people to participate in projects as full partners, with equity stakes. That can be challenging for small communities but is essential for them to “buy into” the project, he said. He also runs a mentoring program for indigenous Canadians to learn best practices from communities that have completed projects.

Ms. Kenequanash is working with the 22 Wataynikaneyap partners to build that human capacity. She recently flew into Pikangikum, a troubled reserve of 2,700 people with a host of social ills. The day she landed, the power had failed and the meetings took place in the rapidly fading night of a northern autumn.

“The people are very supportive of the project,” she said. “They needed this line as soon as possible.”

Younger generation demanding change

The Xeni Get’in people of the B.C.’s Nemiah Valley are turning to solar energy to complement their diesel generators, which are limited in capacity and expensive to use.

A small population spread out along the valley, the Xeni Get’in First Nation is building a microgrid in the central region that includes the band office, a community centre and a cluster of houses. It will be powered by a hybrid solar-propane system that will cut fuel use by as much as 80 per cent during the summer season.

Under an earlier project funded by Natural Resources Canada, eight homes received solar photovoltaic panels, coupled with hybrid-battery systems that provide a continuous supply of electricity to the houses.

Michelle Myers works on local engagement for the project, building capacity and support for the clean energy technology that she believes is critical to the long-term sustainability of the Xeni Ghet’in community. Williams Lake is the closest town at 250 kilometres northeast, and the isolation and lack of energy resources have limited the residents’ options for developing a sustainable economy.

Now studying environmental conservation and native studies at the University of Alberta, Ms. Myers grew up with the stories of her grandparents who were totally removed from the modern world, and she had limited access to reliable power even as a child.

But the younger generation is demanding change, and want access to the modern world.

“There’s no real attraction to being a household that has no access to WiFi or to power,” Ms. Myers said. “There’s a disconnect with the rest of the world and people know the quality of life is lacking, even compared to towns like Williams Lake.”

In the High Arctic, the failure of a diesel generator can be a matter of life and death. Territorial governments are working with Ottawa to identify the best options for replacing older generators with cleaner, more reliable sources of power.

But Grant Sullivan, of the Gwich’in Tribal Council, warns against pursuing a one-size-fits-all strategy. The Gwich’in council includes four communities along the Mackenzie River – Inuvik, Aklavik, Fort McPherson and Tsiigehtchic, and each has different needs and capacities, he said.

Working with Chris Henderson of Ottawa-based Lumos Energy, Mr. Sullivan is preparing a report on the “avoided costs” of replacing diesel power in the Arctic. He hopes it will become the basis of negotiations with the utilities that now provide diesel services to communities across the territories.

But in addition to the hard costs that can be counted, Mr. Sullivan is attempting to put some value on the social costs, including health impacts and the risk of generators breaking down.

“We are able to count on the generators pretty regularly but if you have a blackout in February, your house freezes in six hours and all your pipes explode,” he said. “It doesn’t take a lot to really have a serious situation on our hands.”

The Gwich’in tribal member is particularly wary of southern politicians or “experts” who offer solutions that just don’t work in the North. It is critical, he said, that communities do proper planning, and not just on supply options but on how to use energy most efficiently.

Mr. Sullivan recalls visiting a high-efficiency home near Ottawa and being struck by the amount of insulation, compared with the flimsy construction in the North. “We’re in the Arctic – that’s just crazy when you go to Southern Ontario and the houses have more insulation than in the Arctic,” he said. “Yes, it’s expensive to move material up [to the North], but you make up for it with avoided costs.”

OTTAWA — The Globe and Mail
Published Wednesday, Nov. 23, 2016 9:51PM EST
Last updated Wednesday, Nov. 23, 2016 10:32PM EST