Part one of a two-part series from The Tyee. Read part two: Clean Power Remains a Major Challenge for Remote First Nations.
Cameron Hill will never forget the cold October night in 1975 when a diesel generating plant breakdown cut all power to Hartley Bay's homes and water treatment. Completely isolated 140 kilometres south of Prince Rupert on British Columbia's north coast, the village and home community of the Gitga'at First Nation (pronounced "Git-Gat") was completely on its own.
"Six weeks later, the power was still out," says Hill, 47, now the school principal and a 20-year Gitga'at band councillor. More than anything else, he remembers watching his family's winter supply of salmon, halibut, moose and berries defrost and spoil in their multiple freezers.
The great blackout was a defining moment for Hartley Bay. Within three years, a plan emerged to build a small hydro project to replace their unreliable, dirty and expensive diesel, which like everything else, they can't source themselves and must be shipped four hours from Prince Rupert.
So it's amazing that, nearly four decades on, the community vision for clean energy remains in limbo. It certainly hasn't been for lack of effort: the Gitga'at have successfully navigated the complexities of multiple government bureaucracies, lined up millions in loans and grants, and were even awarded an energy purchase agreement in 2014. But it has not been enough. The hydro project is stalled, forcing Gitga'at leaders like Hill to face another generation burning the same dirty fuel.
"My mom and dad fought to have hydro," says Hill, who remains one of the community's biggest hydro champions. "Now, my generation is fighting for it, too."
Stuck with Dirty Diesel
Hartley Bay is just one of an estimated 175 remote communities across Canada that must burn diesel fuel to generate electricity. Most are aboriginal hamlets where energy poverty is deeply intertwined with access to clean water, food security and limited economic opportunity. Diesel is dirty, toxic and volatile in price, and many First Nations must move it in by expensive and often seasonal modes of transport, whether by truck, ocean-going ship, rail or even air. Spills are commonplace across the North.
But despite available technology and much talk about ramping up clean energy to avoid catastrophic climate change, aboriginal communities still face enormous barriers in escaping their energy dependence on fossil fuels.
Hartley Bay was one of the first remote B.C. coastal communities to get "electrified" by diesel in 1928, a project funded by the Gitga'at themselves. On a Tyee visit to the community in January 2016, elder and Hereditary Chief Ernie Hill Jr., Cam's father, recounted his mother's experience at a 1928 feast to celebrate the first electric light. It was otherworldly technology to most, he said. Some marvelled at how oil could be fed through transmission wires that were so thin, and one visitor to the community cut a light bulb from a wire, in hopes of taking the light home.
The original 1928 diesel generator still stands. Photo: Christopher Pollon.
That was then. For the 180 Gitga'at who live in Hartley Bay today, life on diesel has become untenable: the cost of generation is on the rise, and brown outs and power surges are a common occurrence. Christmas Day in 2012 saw most of the village men huddled around the generator, trying to fix a cooling system in time to get their turkeys in the oven.
Bills from BC Hydro, which operates and maintains the diesel plant and charges the locals for usage, remain a bone of contention. Despite the installation of smart meters in 2013, inexplicable discrepancies exist in power bills, neighbours complain. Meanwhile, over 500,000 litres of diesel must be shipped in by barge each year, putting local waters at risk. In 2008, a faulty gauge on a storage tank caused 10,000 litres to spill into the ocean.
While the imperative to get off diesel has been mostly economic over the years, awareness of the greenhouse emissions their power plant pumps out — at least 2,000 tonnes a year — strikes close to home.
"Hydro makes business and environmental sense," says Cameron Hill. "Especially coming from a people who still live off the land and don't want to contribute to climate change."
A Vision for Hydro
Hydro also makes a lot of sense in a place where almost five metres of rain falls each year.
Hartley Bay is so wet that buildings must be constructed on wooden stilts driven deep into the swampy edges of the sea. To get anywhere in the village, you must navigate a system of wooden boardwalks built above the spongy muskeg. "Our Elders have said, we must take advantage of what God gave us," recounted Cam Hill. "And that's water."
House on stilts in Hartley Bay. Photo: Christopher Pollon.
Ernie Hill recalls that the federal Department of Indian Affairs briefly viewed getting Hartley Bay off diesel as a priority — during the oil "price shocks" of the early 1970s that saw price spikes and shortages. But after a pre-feasibility plan in 1978, the federal government ultimately balked at the $1-million price tag as oil prices settled back down.
Successive chiefs and councils never lost interest, however. The "run-of-lake" design currently envisioned would see a small dam built on a lake above the village to ensure there's always enough water to make power. A pipe would channel the water down to a powerhouse where it would turn generators before being released back into the Gabion river, which bisects the village and flows out to sea.
The vision guarantees energy security for the community: the diesel plant will be maintained and at the ready, but only as a backup if the hydro plant goes down.
The Gabion River. Photo: Christopher Pollon.
A Health Issue, too
Among the first things I noticed about the Hills' spacious bungalow — other than lots of guns and a pirate flag flying out front — was that the wood stove is always on.
BC Hydro's mantra of putting on a sweater and turning down the heat is not an option here: without steady heat, mould would devour the houses of Hartley Bay, and worse. The local clinic has historically reported high incidences of bronchial, nose, throat and ear problems such as Otitis media in children, that are thought to be linked to exposure to mould.
The Hills buy wood pellets by the tonne from a company in Prince Rupert, made from pine trees killed by the mountain pine beetle. Others rely on heaters that burn diesel and heating oil, as expensive and prone to spill as the stuff used at the power plant. But keeping the mould away has its own dangers. Days before I arrived, a house in the village burned to the ground when a damaged plug-in space heater was left unattended.
And therein lies one barrier to getting Hartley Bay its hydro. Fixing and replacing housing on the reserve has to take priority over the new power plant, and there are only so many financial and human resources to handle so many projects. (At least 10 new houses are being built on the reserve this year alone, costing millions.)
A mould-damaged house sits vacant. Photo: Christopher Pollon.
And like many other First Nations, successive Gitga'at band councils have found themselves in perennial crisis management mode, dealing with capital demands as they come up. A hepatitis A outbreak in Hartley Bay in 1997 necessitated a costly revamp of the community's water treatment plant. A new sewage treatment plant looms on the horizon — another $1 million.
With fewer than 200 people (another 450 Gitga'at live off-reserve), the community has also been forced to navigate a maze of government jurisdictions and funding bodies in pursuit of its clean energy vision.
That experience is widely shared in off-grid Canadian reserve hamlets, says Liane Inglis, who wrote her 2012 Simon Fraser University thesis on the barriers to clean energy development in remote B.C. communities.
First Nations like Hartley Bay must not only work within their own complex governments (including the often grey jurisdictional zone between elected band councils and hereditary chiefs), but are forced simultaneously to interact with the federal Aboriginal Affairs department, provincial ministries and BC Hydro. The effort can easily overwhelm capacity, she concluded.
Hartley Bay moved forward where it could. Beginning in 2010, it participated in BC Hydro's Remote Community Electrification Program (the program was suspended in early 2015). That led to an agreement by which the Crown utility would buy all the hydro the project generates — and then sell it back to the reserve residents who consume it. Once the project's debt is paid off, the revenues will flow to the First Nation.
For the hydro project to move forward, the Gitga'at needed a buyer for their energy, and through their energy purchase agreement BC Hydro became that buyer. Before that could happen however, the village's aging transmission infrastructure needed a costly and time-intensive upgrade to meet BC Hydro standards.
Some might say that getting this far is an achievement in itself for Hartley Bay. The progress, as I'll report tomorrow, has a lot to do with an unlikely combination of events from outside the tight-knit community: the arrivals of a clean energy champion — and an agent from a pipeline company.