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Clean energy case study: A conversation about powering Indigenous and remote communities

March 30, 2021

By Peter Bright

Energy experts discuss Canada’s first fully integrated solar energy-storage system in a remote First Nations community

Indigenous communities in outlying areas left off main electric grids across Canada have for years been searching for reliable and clean energy resources as an alternative to diesel power.

As I’ve written before, that reliance on diesel runs contrary to the cultural beliefs of the community and connection to the land. It can be challenging to find reliable energy resources that are also from clean renewable power.

I’ve been fortunate enough to be part of a solution for this challenge. It’s possible to use natural weather resources like the sun and wind—along with battery storage—to produce clean energy for remote communities. 

The new solar panels in Kiashke Zaaging Anishinaabek ― Gull Bay First Nation are helping to reduce the community’s reliance on diesel power. 

For the remote First Nation community in Gull Bay, Ontario, also known as Kiashke Zaaging Anishinaabek (KZA), a solar energy-storage microgrid system offered the perfect solution.

Here’s some background on Gull Bay, which is an Ojibway Nation located on the western shores of Lake Nipigon. It is roughly a 200-kilometre drive north from the closest urban city of Thunder Bay, Ontario. Gull Bay has about 1,375 residents.

For years, Gull Bay relied on diesel as its only energy source. But since 2019, Gull Bay is home to Canada's first fully integrated solar energy-storage system based in a remote First Nations community.

The approach uses solar power, battery storage, and automated-control technology to provide much-needed electricity to the community. Using natural weather resources and coupling it with energy storage has been a game changer for a community that values their connection with the land and nature. This project will replace approximately 130,000 litres of diesel fuel per year with clean solar power.

Here’s something important to mention: this approach is a repeatable solution that works well with the cultural values of Indigenous communities, and it’s equally applicable to any remote town or work site.

The EHouse, otherwise known as the microgrid control center, at Kiashke Zaaging Anishinaabek ― Gull Bay First Nation, is producing clean energy for the remote community.

I thoroughly enjoyed my time working on this project, and I’m looking forward to helping bring clean energy to other Indigenous and remote communities. For this blog, I’m thrilled to bring together four experts to share their insights on the Gull Bay microgrid project. I’m asking questions to these esteemed experts:

  • AJ Esquega, Mashkawiziiwin Energy Projects Coordinator at Gull Bay First Nation
  • Shawn Bremner, Senior Business Development Engineer at Ontario Power Generation (OPG)
  • Kevin Ritzmann, Senior Director at Alltrade Industrial Contractors
  • Justin Rangooni, Executive Director at Energy Storage Canada

From my experience, it seems the community at large has not only embraced the project but are also quite knowledgeable about clean energy. How did you engage and win the buy-in of the elders and broader community?

AJ: Keeping the community involved throughout all stages of the project was key. I knew the project had to be community driven. We did Clean Energy Jeopardy with the youth, Clean Energy Bingo with elders, information sessions on and off-reserve, published seasonal newsletters online, and so much more.

There are so many exciting ideas and activities that can be shared and experienced with the community when it comes to clean energy.

There are so many exciting ideas and activities that can be shared and experienced with the community when it comes to clean energy.

This is OPG’s fifth development project with an Indigenous community. What factors led to this microgrid collaboration, specifically with KZA in this location?

Shawn: After OPG settled a past grievance with KZA, we decided to partner together on this unique microgrid project to further that reconciliation. Recognizing that they had left KZA off the Ontario electrical grid, the IESO (Independent Electricity System Operator) established a fund to support communities and find alternative methods of reducing diesel use.

OPG was looking for an opportunity to do a hands-on microgrid development project to expand our knowledge of the technology involved. The project then received additional funding through the provincial and federal government. With the right funding and plans in place, we got to work.

As designers for the new microgrid system at Gull Bay, I know we at Stantec faced several design challenges—including the design of a resilient system in a remote location, technology variations, and, of course, ensuring our design would respect the land with no environmental impacts. Can you tell me about some of the greatest challenges faced during construction?

Kevin: From the construction perspective, we were met with several hurdles, throughout the lifecycle of this unique “first in Canada” microgrid project. There were also certainly some great lessons learned that we are excited to share. Some of these challenges included the existing geotechnical site, the remote northern location, how to best manage multiple project stakeholder requirements, and the selection of the microgrid equipment to best connect and integrate into the existing diesel system.

AJ Esquega, energy projects coordinator from Kiashke Zaaging Anishinaabek ― Gull Bay First Nation, poses during the 2019 unveiling of Gull Bay’s solar energy-storage system.

How has the community responded to this project? What immediate benefits have you seen so far since installation?

AJ: The project has satisfied many needs on several levels. The project helped reconcile a troubled past between Gull Bay and OPG. We are benefitting from less noise and cleaner air, and most importantly, we have access to clean and reliable energy.

Energy Storage Canada is an industry association focused on advancing the role of energy storage in Canada. How can others look to this energy-storage project as a model for their own indigenous communities?

Justin: This project demonstrates the value that energy storage can provide to stakeholders, communities, and the overall system in Canada. The project provides a perfect example of the advantages of moving from diesel to clean energy. It is a repeatable solution that works well with the cultural values of Indigenous communities, but it’s equally applicable to any remote town or work site.

Want to learn more? These experts recently came together for a webinar where they discussed the unique challenges and opportunities surrounding projects like the Gull Bay microgrid.

  • Peter Bright

    Peter provides project and program management services for a wide variety of power and building clients.

    Contact Peter
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