The silent strength of Indigenous renewable energy micro-grids

·5 min read

For the first time since the 1970s, silence descended on the tiny, isolated village of Old Crow in Canada’s Arctic in August.

For generations, the community of the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation in the Yukon, about 100 kilometres east of the Alaskan border, had suffered the incessant drone of diesel-powered generators to meet its electricity needs.

But the fly-in community, 120 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle, was quiet for the first time in decades as the nation brought its solar energy micro-grid online, said Chief Dana Tizya-Tramm at an official COP26 side event Thursday.

“We can now enjoy silence and hear our animals and the crows caw from across our village for the first time in 50 years,” said Tizya-Tramm in a video address to a panel discussing Indigenous renewable micro-grids (REMs) at the UN climate conference in Glasgow.

Hosted by the Canadian non-profit, Indigenous Clean Energy (ICE), panellists shared how renewable micro-grids developed and operated by and for Indigenous nations reflect traditional worldviews, foster sustainable economic development and Indigenous sovereignty all while addressing the climate crisis.

The Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation boldly undertook one of the largest solar panel projects in Canada’s North as an important step to transition away from fossil fuels to renewables and meet the community’s goal of reaching net-zero carbon emission by 2030, Tizya-Tramm said.

The project’s 2,160 panels maximize solar generation during the long daylight hours of the Arctic’s summer sun. The array ties into a 616-kilowatt battery energy storage system and micro-grid controller, reducing the use of diesel generators by 2,000 hours, or 189,000 litres of diesel fuel annually.

The REM is expected to reduce 680 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions and meet a quarter of the community’s energy needs.

The Arctic region in Canada and Indigenous people are being impacted by the worst effects of climate change — with temperatures rising at three times the global average.

The community-led solar initiative signals the emergence of new relationships between Indigenous people and the energy sector, Tizya-Tramm said, with Indigenous clean energy leaders establishing the framework for disruptive business models.

Under a 25-year electricity purchase agreement with ATCO Electric Yukon, energy generated by the solar project will be bought at rates similar to the cost of diesel generation.

“Our electricity purchase agreement now diverts over $410,000 a year back into our community,” he said, adding the money will be used to fund other renewable energy projects.

Such Indigenous clean energy projects empower Indigenous rights and communities, Tizya-Tramm said.

“We as individuals across the world cannot simply give our power to international negotiators at any cost,” he said.

“We cannot give our power to CEOs or leaders; we as individuals need to find our identity.”

Ambika Opal, manager of global initiatives at the Waterloo Institute for Sustainable Energy (WISE), said renewable micro-grids offer populations struggling with energy poverty clean and affordable alternatives.

But getting up and running can be challenging, she said.

First and foremost, trust-building in the community is key to achieving buy-in for any clean energy project, as is incorporating Indigenous land-based knowledge into the development of solutions.

Other critical success factors include identifying community energy champions with knowledge of the area and ensuring the involvement and empowerment of women, Opal said.

Job creation is a priority, and grant applications focusing on community needs around clean water, health or housing are important.

The costs of REMs are still prohibitively expensive, particularly for small Indigenous communities, she said. Another persistent difficulty is maintaining and operating the systems without training community members.

The struggle to get the necessary information or data, such as demand forecasting, makes producing feasibility assessments difficult, Opal said, issuing a call to action to researchers, educational institutions, and policymakers to step up and help overcome hurdles.

Canada’s Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson acknowledged the leadership and influence Indigenous communities have had in helping the country reach its net-zero target and sustainable development goals (SDGs).

The government is making generational investments to help remote communities move off fossil fuels, such as diesel and propane, he told the panel.

The federal government has committed $300 million over five years to help transition rural remote and Indigenous communities to clean energy, he said.

Wilkinson also announced that Canada is investing $500,000 in partnership with the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) to share best practices to help remote communities make the switch to renewable energy across the globe.

“I’m certainly excited that remote communities across our country, alongside Indigenous climate leaders, will be able to share their experiences around the world, and help build capacity elsewhere to promote local ownership and help to drive economic development,” he said.

Eryn Stewart, managing director of ICE, said her messaging to policymakers and governments would be to ensure any REM projects leverage the strength of Indigenous land-based wisdom.

“You can have all the technical advisers you’d like, but there is really no substitute for local knowledge and community energy champions,” Stewart said.

Every community hoping to transition to clean energy should be getting government funds for dedicated positions to facilitate REM projects, she added.

“Because when we talk about the SDGs (at COP26), we talk about these big ambitions and goals, but on the ground in communities, it’s often one person leading those directives, and we need to support them.”

Tizya-Tramm finished by saying the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation’s solar project encapsulates the UN Paris accord and the hopes and dreams of his people.

The world faces an existential threat in climate change, and Indigenous people around the globe can lead by example with ancient principles of coexistence, he said.

And no community is too remote, or too small, to develop clean energy solutions.

“If my small community can make such leaps and bounds, any community can do this,” Tizya-Tramm said.

“It’s not too late to return to our communities and empower them,” he said.

“It is not too late to create bold and ambitious projects that move us forward — but we must do so together. This is the message of our lands, our animals, and people.”

Rochelle Baker / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada’s National Observer

Rochelle Baker, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Canada's National Observer

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