Renewable Energy as Reconciliation


Guest Column / Elizabeth May

Canada faces major challenges that, while appearing separate, may share a common solution. I would rate climate change and reconciliation between Indigenous peoples and non-indigenous as top and pressing priorities. The potential to find solutions to both through renewable energy and indigenous partnerships is real. Across Canada, with little fanfare, significant investments are being made in renewable energy and clean tech by indigenous communities. 

According to a 2017 survey conducted by Chris Henderson for Lumos Energy, nearly one-fifth of the country’s renewable energy projects are being led by or partially owned by Indigenous communities. Where in 2008, there were approximately 20 such projects, in 2017 there were 152 medium to large renewable energy projects with Indigenous involvement.
A medium to large project provides the electricity for 400-500 homes. In addition, there were 1,200 renewable projects with indigenous involvement that generated less. In the 2017 survey, 63 per cent of the projects involved hydroelectric power, 24 per cent were wind power and only 13 per cent solar and biomass.

Back in 2013 Chris Henderson documented the enormous potential for indigenous involvement in renewable energy in his book, Aboriginal Power: Clean Energy and the Future of Canada’s First Peoples. Since then, many new and larger projects have been launched. 

While solar was a small component even a year ago, the plunging price for photo-voltaic panels has contributed to a lot of newly installed Indigenous solar capacity. The two largest solar projects in British Columbia are both owned and operated by First Nations. The largest was installed in 2016 by the Nicola band, near Merritt, and the second is the T’Sou-ke solar project on southern Vancouver Island.

Solar is also being installed by First Nations in Alberta. The Lubicon and now the four nations south of Edmonton collectively known as Maskwacis are benefiting from direct electricity harnessed from the sun’s energy. The Maskwacis, with financial support from the Alberta government, have installed 750 solar panels on public buildings. 

Meanwhile, the federal government has committed up to $220 million over six years to assist remote indigenous communities get off diesel and move to renewable energy. 

Here on Vancouver Island, the tiny community of Hupacasath First Nation has achieved a strong measure of experience others can build on. Back in 2005, the Hupacasath First Nation took a 72 per cent ownership position in building a run-of-the-river hydroelectric dam on China Creek. It provides more than enough electricity for the community, as well as for 6,000 homes in Port Alberni which has a 5 per cent share in the dam. 

This experience turned the Hupacasath chief at the time, Judith Sayers, into a powerful voice for indigenous self-determination in harnessing renewable energy. It also led her to be a persistent critic of BC Hydro and its mega-project at Site C. Both megaprojects—Muskrat Falls in Newfoundland and Labrador and Site C in BC—have in common violation of indigenous rights, destruction of critical wildlife habitat to produce unnecessary power at a price no one can afford. 

So much more could have been accomplished for renewable energy and respect for indigenous rights if Site C had been turned down. In my riding, a wind energy company, Aeolis Wind, had already developed agreements with the Treaty 8 nations in the Peace River area for a massive wind farm project. It would have taken advantage of the steady and strong winds, not interfered with traditional indigenous sites nor flooded out thousands of hectares of prime agricultural land. It would have connected to the strong grid already in existence for the Bennet dam. The BC Public Utilities Commission found renewables to be cost effective compared with the mega-dam at Site C. Meanwhile, Aeolis had built in to the wind energy plan a massive battery for storage of wind power to be kept on hand when the wind isn’t blowing. 

Across Canada, there is tremendous potential to engage indigenous communities living near abandoned mine or gravel pits to be used as reservoirs. Essentially abandoned mine sites at elevation can become storage batteries for renewables. 

Fully engaging indigenous communities—coupled with modernizing and enhancing the east-west electricity grid to deliver green energy to provinces dependent on fossil fuels, could massively accelerate the decarbonization of our electricity sector, while delivering on meaningful reconciliation. It is time to take this potential seriously.  

Elizabeth May, Leader of the Green Party of Canada, is the MP for Saanich-Gulf Islands.