Approximately 170 remote Indigenous communities are nestled in nearly every province and territory in Canada, many of which are hundreds of kilometres away from the North American electricity grid. Around 100,000 people live in these communities and rely on diesel - an expensive fossil fuel that is potent with greenhouse gases that are harmful to the environment and human health.
Many of these remote communities face harsh climates - blistering cold temperatures dipping below -20°C and days with 24 hours of darkness. Diesel fuel is a reliable energy source that meets the needs for electricity and heating, but it comes with a harsh price.
Renewable energy projects in Canada’s remote communities nearly doubled between 2015 and 2020.
Not only is the fuel itself highly polluting, but the method of delivering diesel requires vehicles that also emit significant greenhouse gases such as transport trucks, barges and planes. Both the reliance on costly energy and the harmful impacts experienced by local environments and communities, such as air pollution, raise the need for clean and reliable energy.
A new report from Pembina Institute found that the reliance on diesel is beginning to wane as the number of renewable energy projects in Canada’s remote communities nearly doubled between 2015 and 2020. During this five year period, 82 diesel reduction systems have been installed and three remote communities have been connected to provincial or territorial electricity grids, both of which replace the use of diesel.
The report notes that there has been a considerable increase in solar energy and bioheat projects since 2018, which have resulted in less noise pollution, less diesel exhaust emissions and economic benefits including increased financial savings and revenue and local job opportunities.
ENERGY USE AND VIABILITY VARIES ACROSS REMOTE REGIONS
Different sources of renewable energy are used in each remote community due to the uniqueness of each region, including the availability of natural resources and population size. For example, the renewable energy sectors in remote B.C. and Quebec communities are dominated by small hydropower systems while residential wood stoves make up the majority of the renewable heating sector in B.C. and Ontario.
The report states that the territory or province with the highest number of renewable energy projects is Northwest Territories (NWT) with 73, as of this year. Canada Energy Regulator states that approximately 75 per cent of NWT’s electricity comes from hydroelectricity, but relies more heavily on diesel during the drier years.
Other small-scale projects in NWT include wind and solar energy, which have helped sustainability power entire communities. In 2013 four wind turbines were set up to provide electricity for the primarily diesel-based microgrid at Lac de Gras, which were custom-designed to withstand temperatures as low as -40°C.
Even though solar provides less than 1 per cent of NWT’s energy needs, a 100 kW solar array has helped power Colville Lake with a solar/battery and diesel hybrid system since 2016. Prior to this renewable energy project, roughly 160 individuals in Colville Lake entirely relied on diesel, which had an annual import cost of $140,000. Several additional solar panel facilities have been installed in NWT since 2016, which has helped reduce the amount of diesel that is typically imported into the community.
These renewable energy projects in NWT demonstrate the potential for a diverse mix of energy to power communities in a way that is sustainable and improves human health. However, the advancement of renewable energies in other provinces and territories have been slower in comparison.
The report states that remote communities in Nunavut and Quebec have the heaviest reliance on diesel for electricity. Communities in Nunavut are particularly diesel dependent because of the territory’s geographic size - it is the largest of all provinces and territories in Canada with a landmass of nearly 2,000,000 square km and a population just under 40,000 people.
Qulliq Energy Corporation (QEC) is the sole utility that provides electricity in Nunavut and states that there are several reasons why the territory heavily relies on diesel. Nunavut does not have a shared transmission grid, so each community relies on independent power plants that generate and distribute energy to an area, which is not capable of sharing power between communities. This means that 25 power plants operate in each of Nunavut’s 25 communities and solely run on diesel fuel to generate energy.
Rankin Inlet diesel power station in Nunavut, Canada. Credit: Janne Wallenius/ Wikimedia Commons.
QEC has started several initiatives to increase the amount of renewables in the energy mix, including the opportunity for residential and municipal electricity customers to produce their own renewable energy and integrate their surplus into QEC’s local grid in exchange for credits, which began in April 2018.
Recently, QEC, the Canadian federal government and the Mayor of Kugluktuk funded the territory’s first hybrid solar/diesel power plant. The plans were announced in August 2019 and intend to replace the city’s inefficient diesel facility that provides power for hundreds of people.
UNDERSTANDING THE POTENTIAL, IMPLEMENTING THE CHANGE
Back in fall 2019, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pledged that all communities currently relying on diesel will be “powered by clean, reliable energy by 2030.” Despite this ambitious goal, the report states that diesel usage since 2015 has grown at a rate of 682 million litres per year due to population growth. Perhaps even more disconcerting is Pembina’s projection that 79 per cent of electricity in remote communities will be sourced from diesel.
While most of the renewable energy projects over the past two years have been collaborations supported with federal provincial/territorial funding programs, there is currently no interim goal to eliminate diesel for heating.
Some of the upcoming projects that will be developed in 2020 include at least 11 more renewable energy systems that will be operational by the end of this year, expanded grid connections in northern Ontario, small hydro-electric systems in B.C. and northern Quebec and Canada’s first remote community wind systems in Yukon, Nunavut and the Nunatsiavut region of Labrador.
The report’s findings highlight both the viability and challenges of renewable energy in Canada’s remote communities. Effective government policies and programs are necessary to advance community-led clean energy projects in remote Indigenous communities, which Pembina says can be done through wide-scale collaboration.
The report says that next steps include: expanding the building capacity in remote communities, investing in infrastructure as well as Indigenous communities and businesses, progressive targets, effective climate and energy policy, support for Indigenous self-determination for their energy future and a full account of environmental, health, community and social benefits.