Indigenous communities across Canada are increasingly turning towards renewable resources for their energy needs as part of an effort to become more self-sufficient and environmentally responsible by reducing their reliance on diesel fuel.
There is strong economic incentive for remote communities to invest in clean energy, including smaller household energy bills and new jobs in building and maintaining renewable energy infrastructure.
Currently, there are about 300 Indigenous clean energy projects in 194 communities in Canada, but many of them are in the early trial or research stages. Most of these projects are in British Columbia or Ontario.
The First Nations Clean Energy Business Fund is a government initiative in British Columbia to encourage and aid Indigenous communities in pursuing clean energy projects. In Ontario, there are several educational and funding programs for Indigenous communities to encourage energy awareness and efficiency, as well as the creation of renewable energy projects. These programs include the Energy Partnerships program and the Aboriginal Community Energy Plan program.
Alberta, which has few Indigenous renewable energy projects, is expected to see some growth in solar power. Alberta has recently launched a pilot program called the Alberta Indigenous Solar Program, which provides grants to Indigenous communities or organizations to install solar photovoltaic (PV) systems.
In 2016, the federal government of Canada also promised a portion of its budget to support energy efficiency and renewable energy production in off-grid Indigenous and northern communities that currently rely on fossil fuels. The government will provide $10.7 million to Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada over the course of two years. In addition, they have promised $128.8 million over five years to Natural Resources Canada for energy efficiency and clean energy programs.
Hydropower is used across Canada and makes up approximately 60 per cent of energy production nationally. Energy from rivers can be harnessed either through dams, which are a reliable source of renewable energy and can vary in size, or run-of-river pipes, which have a lesser environmental impact on their surroundings but can be less reliable. Several indigenous projects exist in various provinces and territories, the largest concentration being in British Columbia.
Wind energy can be harnessed both on land and offshore, in specific locations where strong winds are a common occurrence. Wind power projects are most common in Indigenous communities at lower latitudes, with the majority being found in eastern Canada, such as in Ontario and the Maritime provinces.
Solar PV or solar thermal panels use energy from the sun to provide electricity and heating. Solar power can provide energy for communities most efficiently at lower latitudes. The majority of larger solar power projects in Indigenous communities are located in southern Canada.
Energy use and production in Canada’s North is a complex issue. Supplying energy, both for residential and commercial use, is challenging because of the remoteness of many of the communities in the Yukon, Northwest Territories and Nunavut. Households in the North use about twice as much energy as those in the South because of longer and harsher winters. Currently, these communities rely mainly on imported fossil fuels, such as diesel, for heating and power. Diesel is considered to be a reliable but costly energy source, in both the financial and environmental sense.
Being dependent on imported fossil fuels means that these communities are vulnerable to price fluctuations and supply disruptions. Climate change is another important factor in the North, where its effects are felt more strongly than at lower latitudes.
The greenhouse gases emitted from the burning of fossil fuels contribute to climate change. The territories have made commitments to reduce the effects of climate change by looking into clean and renewable energy. There is an abundance of renewable resources in the North that have yet to be developed for energy production.
Hydroelectricity is already a significant source of energy and heating in the Yukon, as well as the Northwest Territories. Although the potential for hydropower development in the North is high many of the potential sites are far away from consumers. The expansion of existing dams and the extension of the hydroelectric grind is currently a key priority for the Northwest Territories and the Yukon.
A problem for solar power in northern communities is the lack of sunlight in winter months, when energy demand is the highest due to heating needs. Currently, the communities and individual households that do have solar power installations use it for half the year as a way to offset diesel use.
Wind is the most abundant renewable energy in Northern communities, but it has not seen as much development because of logistical and financial challenges for building and maintaining wind power facilities. There are some wind farms both in the Yukon and Northwest Territories, and Nunavut is making plans for pilot wind projects.
One of the biggest obstacles to developing the necessary infrastructure for renewable energy is funding. Supplying and transporting materials, short construction seasons, and accounting for the effects of climate change on existing infrastructure and transportation routes (e.g. melting of permafrost and sea ice) are all contributing factors to the high cost of building in the North.
There are steps being made to encourage renewable energy use on a small scale in the more remote communities. Nunavut, which is heavily reliant on diesel fuel and faces many obstacles for renewable energy production, has introduced a net-metering program to allow electricity consumers to produce their own electricity, such as through solar energy, to offset their electricity bills. The Northwest Territories and the Yukon also have net-metering or micro-generation programs for independent electricity production.
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