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White River First Nation forges ahead with largest solar project in Yukon

Several diesel-powered communities across the territory have looked to renewables to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and attain energy independence

If you find yourself in rural Yukon, chances are high you’re in a community powered by diesel. Communities here aren’t connected to a large electricity grid like Whitehorse, or most southern centres, but some are working to gradually wean themselves off fossil fuels nonetheless.

 Yukon First Nations appear to be leading the charge, increasingly turning to renewable energy in a bid to reduce greenhouse gas emissions while becoming more energy independent. There’s a solar farm in Old Crow, Yukon’s northernmost community, and a proposed wind project by Kluane First Nation. 

Now, the largest solar project the territory has ever seen — proposed by White River First Nation — has received a green light from the Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Board

Once fully operational, the array of solar panels will be capable of generating enough electricity to replace 350,000 litres of diesel per year — or 60 per cent of the fuel required to meet the community’s power needs, said Chris Cowx, the general manager of Copper Niisuu Limited Partnership, the First Nation’s development corporation.

He said it’s high time to stop using diesel — full stop. 

“You got a noisy, you know, miserable diesel plant blasting away and putting out noxious fumes all day. None of these things are preferable,” Cowx said.

“The fact that we run all of these northern communities almost invariably off of diesel for decades needs to change. That’s not environmentally responsible. It’s not healthy for the communities, and, frankly, it’s not very practical.”

How can Canada’s North get off diesel?

 $15-million solar project would produce 1.9 megawatts of electricity

The $15-million project, primarily funded by the federal government, covers an area of about seven hectares — roughly 10 soccer fields. The array will be built 1.5 kilometres west of Beaver Creek and made up of seven rows of photovoltaic solar panels capable of generating 1.9 megawatts of power (an eighth row could be added eventually). There’s also a battery that can store four megawatts of electricity — enough to power one home in Yukon for a third of a year. 

Cowx said that 31,000 tonnes of emissions would be cut over the project’s 25-year life: this includes diesel refinement and transportation emissions.

Sunlight this far north skirts the horizon during the summer months, so the solar panels will swivel toward the sun to maximize how much they can soak up, Cowx said.

The roughly 100 residents of Beaver Creek, located near the Alaska border above 62 degrees north, could eventually make money off the project through the Yukon government’s independent power producer program. The program enables communities and residents to sell the utility wind, solar and biomass energy they’ve produced for use in its grid. In this case, power bills for individuals wouldn’t change as the solar panels feed into the local grid, but the First Nation would receive the revenue rather than the utility.

Andrew Hall, the CEO of Yukon Energy, recently told The Narwhal the government is in the process of doubling how much the cottage industry can produce by providing financial and technical support to First Nations and municipalities.

Cowx said electricity would be sold to ATCO electric, the community’s power distributor, as soon as Beaver Creek’s solar farm is up-and-running, but couldn’t say how exactly much money could flow back to the community.

“It should crack nicely into the six figures per year,” he said.

Construction is to move ahead at the end of June to avoid the sharp-tailed grouse mating season, Cowx said. “We’re just working out who’s going to be doing the construction and sorting out the land ownership as well.”

Community also has plans for biomass plant

Beaver Creek’s plans to cut diesel usage don’t end with solar voltaics. The First Nation wants to cut its fossil fuel appetite by as much as 90 per cent with the eventual introduction of a biomass plant and district heating system that would supply buildings via a network of pipes.

Yukon is a land of extremes. In the summer, the territory is inundated with sunlight. Then the darkness comes, with the sun rising around 10 a.m. in the depths of winter. The hope is the power generated through biomass would compensate for the lack of light hitting the community’s solar panels at certain times, Cowx said.

“The diesel plant, with a little luck, will be nothing more than a backup,” he said.

 The community is in the process of speaking with forestry experts and companies that do brush clearing to see how much wood fuel is available to power a biomass facility. The plan is to start with powering one or two buildings using biomass, and then expand over the next decade, Cowx said. 

These plans are subject to negotiations with the Yukon government’s property management division, he said. Once the solar farm is established, biomass would be phased in.

What happens next?

The Yukon government is in the process of reviewing the evaluation report by the assessment board — the territorial government is the deciding body, with the power to accept or reject the assessment board’s recommendation or provide terms and conditions for it. 

One hitch is that White River First Nation still has unsettled land claims. It’s one of only three First Nations that aren’t self-governing in Yukon, with 11 that are. This means White River is still beholden to the Indian Act and has less jurisdiction over certain affairs. Because of this, additional consultation between the Yukon government and the First Nation could occur beyond the 30-day evaluation period generally given to such projects, said Colin McDowell, director of lands management, a branch of Energy, Mines and Resources. In sum: it could take a bit longer than usual.

Asked if there could be any changes to the recommendations, McDowell said, “We wouldn’t want to telegraph where we’re going with this necessarily until the end.

A lease still needs to be established for the solar project site, among other things, which the Yukon government would need to sign off on.

“That’s gonna take some time,” McDowell said.

Completion of Old Crow solar farm delayed by coronavirus travel restrictions

Meanwhile, Old Crow’s solar project is nearing completion, meaning Yukon’s only fly-in community is about to rely less on diesel generators — some of which date back to  the 1970s. Vuntut Gwitchin Chief Dana Tizya-Tramm said the project would displace 189,000 litres of diesel per year. Over its decades-long life cycle, this would equate to a 1,270-tonne reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, including those that come from flying diesel fuel into the community. 

“What we are doing is we are Indigenizing economies, we are Indigenizing contemporary systems,” Tizya-Tramm said, adding that the technology dovetails with traditional principles of environmental stewardship. “I’m really a strong believer that these are simply tools and we may look at them as tools of colonial modern culture, but it does not mean that they can’t be adapted.”

While Tizya-Tramm said Old Crow’s array is the largest of its kind in the circumpolar North, generating 940 kilowatts per year, it’s still smaller than what’s proposed for Beaver Creek. Nonetheless, once online, the system will meet one-quarter of Old Crow’s energy demands per year.

The First Nation already has a purchase agreement in place with ATCO Electric Yukon. Through that agreement, Tizya-Tramm said the solar array will generate roughly $250,000 per year, which will flow back to the community.

But, like so many plans in place before the global pandemic hit, Old Crow’s are temporarily on hold. The solar farm was supposed to be completed on June 21, until that was derailed by COVID-19. The microgrid controller and 616-kilowatt battery have yet to be shipped to the community, Tizya-Tramm said, and, because of travel restrictions, it’s unclear when they will arrive.

“Our solar project caught the COVID virus,” he said.

 The current plan is to have the solar farm up-and-running in September — without these components, which Tizya-Tramm said aren’t essential. While the system won’t be fully-operational, it will still be able to generate supplemental energy for the community.

“We still feel that it’s really important to get it going this year,” he said. “We don’t want to let these setbacks take this opportunity away from us.”

Julien Gignac is The Narwhal’s Yukon correspondent, based in Whitehorse. Of Mohawk and French descent, he has a penchant for…

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