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The territory of Nunavut relies on fossil fuels for power generation, imported from many kilometres away to heat homes and keep lights on. That will soon change in one community, where a wind project is moving forward after years of planning.

Sanikiluaq is an Inuit community on the Belcher Islands in Hudson Bay. An energy purchase agreement signed last week between Nunavut’s Crown electrical utility and Nunavut Nukkiksautiit Corporation (NNC), an Inuit-owned renewable energy developer, will build a 1 MW wind turbine and a 1 MWh battery storage system. The goal is to cut diesel use in the 1,000-resident hamlet in half.

Because Nunavut isn’t connected to a power grid, diesel is shipped in during the summer months to prepare communities for a long winter. The fossil fuel is polluting, expensive and forces people living in the territory to rely on a source of energy over which they have little control. The reliance on diesel stretches beyond Nunavut: off-grid communities in Labrador, the Northwest Territories, Yukon and Nunavik (homeland of the Inuit of Quebec) overwhelmingly depend on diesel.

Residents of Sanikiluaq at the agreement signing on Friday, Sept. 29, 2023. Photo provided by NNC

Yet, there is the potential for these communities to run off renewable resources, explained Heather Shilton, director of NNC. And while wind might not seem like an obvious choice to people living outside Nunavut, it was the most apparent option to everyone in the community.

“If you've ever been to Sanikiluaq, then you probably understand why. It’s very windy there,” said Shilton, who explained that extensive testing was also done to confirm a wind turbine would be viable.

Part of the revenue from the project, which will sell energy back to the utility, will be shared with Sanikiluarmiut (people who live in Sanikiluaq) through a community enhancement fund, explained acting mayor Emily Kattuk, who said the community is “very excited to see how clean energy will benefit our community. Taking care of the environment, working together, sharing resources — these are all Inuit societal values.”

The project agreement, which will run for 25 years once in operation, includes measures to make sure electricity prices do not rise for residents.

The territory of Nunavut relies on fossil fuels for power generation, imported from many kilometres away to heat homes and keep lights on. That will soon change in one community, where a wind project is moving forward after years of planning.

“Renewable energy meshes so well with Inuit culture, and it is our great pleasure to be leading Nunavut on this transition,” said Kattuk.

The wind project, which is expected to be installed next summer, has been in the works since 2015. Progress was slow partly due to lags in the implementation of an independent power producers (IPP) program, a framework to allow Nunavut-based energy producers outside the territory’s utility to generate clean energy and sell it back to the utility, which operates the diesel plant in the community. While an IPP provides security for projects, provinces like British Columbia have completed independent projects outside of a program, explained Lynne Couves, director of renewables in remote communities for Pembina Institute.

Now that an interim IPP policy is in place, the project was able to move forward, explained Couves.

Shifting from diesel

Because of the high price and climate impacts of diesel, the federal government has a goal of getting remote communities off the fossil fuel by 2030. Ottawa has put forward initiatives such as the Northern REACHE Program, which provides $53.5 million over 10 years for renewable energy projects in the North, and the $31-million Impact Canada Indigenous Off-Diesel Initiative. There has been progress, a report from the Pembina Institute points out: between 2015 and 2020, renewable energy projects almost doubled across remote diesel-reliant communities.

And while emissions from diesel-reliant communities like Sanikiluaq don’t begin to compare to the rest of the country, the benefits of transitioning to renewables extend beyond the climate. There are health impacts that come with diesel, such as increased asthma and respiratory disease, along with the high cost and reliance on outside energy sources.

“Traditionally, if we're 100 per cent reliant on diesel, a lot of the money associated with energy goes down. We're paying people from down south to ship it up, paying people from down south to actually purchase the fuel, and we have to store it here and burn it here,” explained Shilton.

“So, I think it's really nice to think about renewable energy as a way to achieve energy sovereignty in Nunavut.”

The project in Sanikiluaq paves the way for more like it while proving that renewables can work in sub-zero climates, explained Couves.

“This is hugely significant because it's going to support other communities, other parts of Nunavut, to be able to do the same thing,” she said.

“And there are some that are waiting. That's the significance of this. For [NNC] to be able to say, ‘Look, here's what we've done.’ To be able to share their learnings with other regions and also for the [utility] to have some experience going through this.”

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Nice to know that northern communities will be able to free themselves from diesel shackles.

You prepare a sewer for the 100-year flood, a roof for the 100-year wind and the 100-year snow.

What's the 100-year "wind-drought" in this part of the world? What's the maximum number of days where you couldn't keep the heat on?

This is the one place with 100% guaranteed "no solar" for months, so in winter, it's all about wind.

For the short term, there's little point in shutting down the existing generation, it would probably cost more to ship to a buyer than its worth. So you can always have a week of diesel handy and just use the old generator as back-up; it'll last a very long time, being only used a few days a year. But it'll start to need more and more repairs, and the problem does need to be solved, long-term.

There may be great potential for Prairie First Nations to similarly utilize their large reserve land holdings for wind and solar generation not just to attain a form of internal independence, but also to sell it to the grid.

This is already happening to a limited degree, but it could become a powerful regional economic force given the distributed characteristic of FN communities. There is no reason why Indigenous power companies can't thrive given society's high energy consumption. First Nations youth would have an array of huge opportunity before them in things like electrical engineering and its spinoffs.

The feds could, if they put a modicum of genuine effort in, start assembling land for a national smart grid devoted solely to clean electricity. Expropriation should be seen only as a last resort and used primarily to create the barest minimum transmission corridor, say 250 meters wide. In regions with vast farms, that is just a narrow slice.

Other options include buying farms and leasing them right back to the farming families very cheaply and for long periods, day 50-100 years. One condition would be they accommodate the transmission right-of-way and invite private wind and solar companies to set up on the land in conjunction with growing crops. Many farmers would no doubt be tempted with the extra income, from the lump sum sale (probably enough to cancel their debts with lots left over) to lease income from renewables, plus additional income from farming. Agrivoltaics is a blessing for everyone.

Line up all the freshly purchased farms and transmission rights-of-way, accommodate First Nations' renewable energy efforts by bringing the corridor into or adjacent to their lands (offer to lease it when needed) and you've got a National Clean Energy Corridor.

Farmers and First Nations have the potential for form an alliance to collectively generate gigawatts of renewable energy, and bringing them together with Smith-proof federally-owned transmission corridors is ideally a role for Ottawa, who would buy the power as a wholesaler and send it down the line or store it to meet demand eventually across the continent and return the profits back to the source.

Any federal corridor, whether for oil, clean power, highways, railways and what have you, should be able to easily pass legal challenges thrown at it by the Danielle Smiths of Canada based on the unanimous decisions in favour, ironically, of TMX by the highest courts in BC and the nation. Their decisions were myopically based on the strength of federal jurisdiction, decisions that ignored everything else.

Why would it not be so for a National Smart Grid?