Indigenous communities in Canada use renewable energy to take their power back
Updated: Oct 16, 2020
Colonization has had widespread, detrimental effects on Indigenous communities in Canada, with resource allocation and infrastructure development preventing many communities from regaining their independence. So what’s the challenge exactly, and how can communities be empowered to generate their own energy in an environmentally friendly manner?
With many First Nation populations having no energy alternatives but diesel, it’s a complex situation. There are 250 or so remote communities, home to around 185,000 people, that are mostly located in B.C., northern Ontario, northern Quebec (Nunavik), northern Labrador (Nunatsiavut), Yukon, the Northwest Territories, and Nunavut.In this context, the word remote refers to the fact that communities are not connected to the country’s centralized electricity grid or natural gas infrastructure. Often, the only way to reach such remote places is by boat, plane, or winter road, which effectively isolates these communities.
According to research conducted at the Pembina Institute, most Canadian households are connected to the electricity grid, (with the electricity they consume generated from multiple sources — hydro, natural gas, coal, wind, solar, and nuclear — with hydropower being the main source). But on the other hand, 70% of remote communities rely on inefficient diesel generators to produce electricity, while 13% rely on hydro, and 17% use a combination of other fossil fuels. In total, it's estimated that remote communities in Canada collectively consume more than 90 million litres of diesel fuel every year for electricity generation.
Not only is this harmful to the environment, it's more costly, especially in remote communities where services cost more, from housing, travel, food, and general supplies. The average home in a representative northern Ontario community consumes the equivalent of 40 barrels (each containing 159 litres) of diesel each year for heat and electricity. This translates to an energy bill of over US $3,000 per year — more than twice that of the average Canadian household. Another Yukon community pays even more, with households averaging US$4,500 per year.
However, this is all changing. In order to self-determinate themselves, and be self-sustaining, many Indigenous peoples are rejecting fossil-fuel powered electricity and turning towards powering their microgrids with renewable energy, which has become far more affordable in recent years. Although powering a microgrid with renewable energy can be more complex, the marginal cost of producing electricity usually decreases. There’s no need to purchase diesel when power can be generated by the sun, earth, and wind!
So, what are the reasons for transitioning towards a sustainable energy future? Long story short, it’s pretty awesome: Indigenous peoples in Canada are using renewable energy to take their power back. By funding and facilitating these renewable energy projects on their own terms, they are actively working towards self-determination and autonomy from colonial powers and practices. In this sense, this innovation is symbolic of much more than just better environmental practices, but a way of establishing independence.
A paper published in Environmental Reviews in 2018 examined the motivations behind the Indigenous-lead transition to renewable energy to better understand its impact on these communities’ autonomy and reconciliation efforts.
“Environmental, economic, and socio-political autonomy were cited as the driving reasons for transitioning to renewable. Initiatives allow Indigenous communities to establish independence from the colonial state in terms of energy and governance, and funds otherwise used to maintain fossil-fuel dependency can instead be used to support community development.”
We had the chance to explore this further with Alyssa Schatz, who is a member of Wood Mountain Lakota First Nation and a descendant of Sitting Bull. Alyssa is an Indigenous Policy Analyst Intern at the Department of Intergovernmental Affairs at Strathcona County and a research assistant at the University of Alberta specialising in studying clean energy transitions for remote Indigenous communities (🙌)
Reflecting on her own personal and professional experiences with the clean energy transition for Indigenous people, she said “Clean energy for Indigenous communities, it’s not like selling bracelets, it’s large-scale multimillion dollar economic development, for Indigenous people, so we can shift the rhetoric of who Indigenous people are and what they bring to the table.”
Beyond this, by powering their microgrids using renewable energy, Indigenous peoples will be able to create better, and more affordable living conditions for themselves, specifically in electrifying public modes of transportation. Alyssa elaborates, “The possibilities are endless with these remote communities, like electrifying transportation by connecting it to the microgrid. There are astronomical costs just to get basic resources, like pencils or books, because everything has to be flown in.”
The concept of deriving energy from renewable resources is not a new one for many Indigenous communities, who have historically lived in harmony with nature, relying on the laws of nature relating to tides, seasons, waters, and ecosystems to prosper in their communities. They don’t work against nature, but alongside it.
Alyssa explains it further, saying that “Indigenous people practiced this for thousands of years, with a focus on a circular economy. The teachings have always thought circularly and to prepare for seven generations ahead. Renewable energy facilitates this.” She continues, “Indigenous peoples have always cherished their relationship with Mother Earth, to keep that relationship and spur it forward.”
In one of her papers Implications of microgrids, economic autonomy and renewable energy systems for remote Indigenous communities, Alyssa explains that ‘Since Indigenous ways of knowing can be conceptually related to renewable energy systems, ecological economic ideology and various forms of innovation, there is an organic opportunity for microgrids, amongst other decentralized energy technologies, to work in concert with Indigenous communities. The natural eclipse of theory and practice has the potential to uplift Indigenous communities across Canada and has already done so. Renewable energy systems enable Indigenous people to address local issues and promote autonomy.’
We know there’s not a lot of positive news in the world right now, but here’s some to potentially brighten your day: Indigenous clean energy projects continue to ramp up Canada-wide. According to data collected by Indigenous Clean Energy, a pan-Canadian not-for-profit platform which advances Indigenous inclusion in Canada’s energy futures economy:
There are a total of 197 medium-to-large renewable energy generating projects with Indigenous involvement are now in operation (171 projects) or in the final stages of planning or construction (26 projects). Most of these projects involve partnerships between Indigenous communities and energy sector companies, utilities, or developers.
Medium-to-large Indigenous renewable energy projects have experienced a 29.6% growth rate across Canada since 2017.
An independent survey has identified a minimum of 127 energy efficiency projects in Indigenous communities at various stages of implementation, from early stage planning to completion. Most of these are small-scale or pilot projects, and many involve energy audits and retrofits.
The impact on employment and contracting income from Indigenous clean energy projects is game-changing. While medium-to-large renewable energy projects are significant job-creators during construction, operational employment is quite modest. However, micro-small and transmission projects are catalysing both construction and operational employment.
- Data pulled directly from ICE Survey*
What stands out about these renewable energy projects is that there are multiple benefits: environmental, sociopolitical, and economical. By integrating renewable energies into their energy systems, they are reducing greenhouse gas emissions and reducing their dependency on diesel oil and fossil fuels for electricity generation. They are symbolically, and literally, working towards self-determination. One can only hope that other populations across the world can emulate the innovation and progress of Indigenous peoples of Canada!