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How to bring clean energy to Indigenous and remote communities

September 10, 2019

By Peter Bright

It’s possible to utilize natural weather resources—and reduce the reliance on diesel—with a scalable, renewable power solution

Imagine living hundreds of miles away from the nearest city. Imagine that for many months of the year, your community is frozen or snowed in with no access to ground transportation. Imagine that the only source of electricity where you live is delivered by diesel power. Imagine that this reliance on diesel runs contrary to your community’s cultural beliefs and its connection to the land.

This isn’t a dream. It’s a reality, and it’s the plight of hundreds of remote and Indigenous communities across Canada. Finding reliable energy resources—that are also from clean renewable power—is a challenge.

But there’s a solution. You can utilize natural weather resources, and use microgrids and battery storage, to create clean energy for remote communities. I recently worked on a game-changing project with Kiashke Zaaging Anishinaabek ― Gull Bay First Nation (KZA) that proved the success of this approach. This 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.

If you’re hoping to bring clean energy to your community, consider a solution like this one.  

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

Diesel implications and renewable-energy technology improvements

First, let me touch on the implications of using diesel fuel. Historically, this has been one of the only off-the-grid energy sources. If your choice is to use diesel or have no heat and electricity, then diesel is a wonderful option. Diesel tends to be expensive, however, since it must be transported by land or sea, and it has some serious environmental and human health pitfalls, including noise, air pollution, fire risks, and spill risks.

Luckily, in recent years, there have been utility scale renewable-energy technology improvements that have made renewable energy accessible. Increased production has made wind and solar equipment more of a commodity. Large scale production has paved the way for reducing costs and making projects more viable.

These days, every renewable-energy project is scalable to meet the need of every size of community, given the space.

The success of KZA

Let’s discuss Gull Bay, Ontario, home to an Ojibway Nation (KZA) located on the western shores of Lake Nipigon. It is roughly a 200-kilometer drive north from the closest urban city of Thunder Bay, Ontario, and has about 1,375 citizens.

For years, KZA relied on diesel as its only energy source. But now, KZA is home to Canada’s first fully integrated solar energy-storage system based in a remote First Nations community. I led a team that provided engineering services on the project, as well as geotechnical and environmental review services.

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

Here’s what the energy plan in KZA looks like now: Using solar, battery storage, and grid technology, KZA’s clean energy microgrid will help reduce the use of diesel fuel by approximately 130,000 liters per year. Around a thousand solar panels, laid out over a one-hectare site, will supply the northern community’s energy needs during the day, while battery storage and diesel power will provide energy at night and during the long, dark winter months.

This is a repeatable solution that works well with the cultural values of Indigenous communities.

KZA will still use diesel power at times. But renewable energy helps supplement the diesel. This is important, as diesel may still be required on your projects. Some communities may feel hesitant to give up diesel entirely, especially if they’ve relied on it for generations. It may take time to phase in this new energy system, as the community starts to feel more comfortable with it and learns how to maintain it.

When it comes to installing solar panels in a remote community, this approach isn’t new. But there’s a unique value in designing a complete microgrid that includes battery storage—and doing it in a way that respects traditional values.

A glimpse into the process

The government of Canada and other organizations track weather data for renewable sources like wind, rain, and sun. Based on the wind and sun irradiance levels and weather patterns, you can go back over time and study how much of those resources are available in a location.

There are weather stations throughout North America, and you can feed that data into your model. There are several companies that provide software—for both wind-modelling and solar-modelling—to help model resources. You feed data into your software, and it tells you how many resources are likely available.

Then, you look at your community or work site to see how much power it needs—and how often it needs it. You can then come up with a solution to meet those requirements. For example, you could implement five wind turbines, a one-megawatt solar farm, and a battery-storage system. This could help the transition from reliance on diesel.

Author Peter Bright stands in front of the EHouse, otherwise known as the microgrid control center, at Kiashke Zaaging Anishinaabek ― Gull Bay First Nation. 

A scalable solution

It’s possible to bring this solution to other Indigenous communities, remote towns, or work sites. Each solution is unique and scalable to meet the needs of the community, but the process is repeatable so that you don’t have to recreate the wheel with each project. This allows you to use the best renewable energy option to meet the needs of the community, based on local weather conditions.

According to the Canadian government, there are more than 630 Indigenous communities and nearly 300 remote communities in Canada, with many more in the United States, Australia, and other countries around the world. At this point, I’d guess that less than 1% of these communities use renewable energy as part of their grid, but I think we can raise that number to at least 5% in the coming decade.

It’s possible to bring clean energy to more of these communities. Let’s make that a reality.

  • Peter Bright

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

    Contact Peter
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