BEAUBASSIN MI'KMAQ WIND MANAGEMENT AN EXAMPLE FOR OFF GRID FIRST NATIONS COMMUNITIES IN CANADA'S NORTH
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By Michelle Moore
Off grid communities living in Canada are often at the most northern points of our country, the vast majority are Aboriginal. They experience harsh winters and very high costs of living. Many of them are powered by large diesel-fuelled generators that provide electricity to the entire community. This means very high costs as well as a high dependence on fuel imported by air, barge or road.
In 2011, a Government of Canada study entitled The Status of Remote and Off Grid Communities in Canada found that "the cost of producing off-grid electricity from diesel generators can be up to 10 times higher than electricity generated on the main grid."
There are roughly 170 Aboriginal communities that are living off the grid, which represents approximately 126, 861 people. Of them, the Yukon has the highest number of Aboriginal peoples living off the grid at 29 840, followed closely by Nunavut and the Northwest Territories.
The high cost of fuel often means people are primarily using fireplaces and wood stoves for heat, but in remote communities it can be difficult to get people who are certified to install wood stoves or maintain chimneys which has led, in part, to a disproportionate number of house fires.
When not properly maintained, diesel-fuelled generators can be unreliable. Sometimes students can miss school when the power goes out. Home appliances like stoves and refrigerators can age more quickly due to an inconsistent power source feeding into the appliance. It can even lead to food insecurity when the only grocery store in town has to close due to a power outage.
In addition, many generators operate at maximum capacity which is problematic as many of these communities have seen an increase in population. Many homes are overcrowded because even if new homes were built, they would be unable to power them. It also deters new business and industry from setting up shop thereby contributing to a lack of economic development.
The Department of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) has put forth The Northern Responsible Energy Approach for Community Heat and Electricity Program (Northern REACHE) to facilitate the transition from diesel-fuelled generators to renewable energy for off grid Aboriginal and northern communities.
The budget for the program is 10.7 million dollars over two years. In 2018-2019, that will increase to 53.5 million dollars over ten years. Communities living in the Yukon, Northwest Territories, Nunavut, Nunavik and Nunatsiavut are invited to apply.
Small hydroelectric projects, biomass, solar and wind are all renewable energy sources that can offer off grid communities viable alternatives.
According to the The Canadian Wind Energy Association, 21 new wind projects were commissioned in Canada in 2016, and 16 of these projects are owned, at least in part, by Aboriginal communities, local communities, or municipal governments.
In Nova Scotia, the Mi'kmaw are taking their energy needs into their own hands. The switch represents not one from diesel but from another fossil fuel, coal. While Nova Scotia Power has reduced their use of coal to produce electricity from 76% in 2007 to 55.9% in 2015, it is still the primary power source.
Fortunately, in that same time frame, wind power has risen from 1% to 14%.The Beaubassin Mi'kmaq Wind Management, is a company owned by 13 band councils in Nova Scotia. They now have a total of 4 projects; the Truro Heights Community Wind Project, the Whynotts Community Wind Project, the Millbrook Community Wind and the Amherst Community Wind Project.
Steve Parsons, Vice President of Beaubassin Mi'kmaq Wind Management and General Manager of Eskasoni Corporate Division said the Mi'kmaw have become major players when it comes to producing electricity in the province.
Parsons said, "First Nations being stewards of the environment, we want to do anything we can as far as green efficiencies. We saw this as being clean renewable energy and under the COMFIT rules [the turbines] became revenue streams for the Mi'kmaw."
COMFIT, like Northern REACHE is a government program created to decrease the use of energy derived from fossil fuels and increase the use of renewable energy sources.
Parsons said they hired First Nations companies for construction and security at the different sites when they could. He added that "band members could apply to take a wind turbine technology course, and [that] 5 or 6 members had gone to the wind training facility in Prince Edward Island." He said some are currently employed with the operations and maintenance crews.
Parsons said "today the Mi'kmaw are producing more power than our  communities consume, and that's an amazing feat."
Terry French is the Director of Commercial Operations for the Millbrook Band, the first Mi'kmaw band to have wind energy project under the COMFIT program.
French said, "if you go back to wind generation in Nova Scotia we initially got into problems, the ability to store [wind energy] is very expensive. One of the reasons it's been beneficial in Nova Scotia is the COMFIT program. From a cost point of view, storing that energy … some days it's windy and some days it's not. You need to be able to store that energy."
While energy storage batteries have become more affordable in recent years, they can still be very expensive for smaller communities to invest in. Under the COMFIT program however, any power generated goes into the main power grid and is simply redistributed thereby eliminating the need for a storage battery. Under The Northern REACHE Program, off grid communities can apply to receive funds for energy storage in addition to renewable energy producing technologies.
French added "we were able to invest [money] back into the community, it's been a very successful project."
What the Mi'kmaw have done in Nova Scotia illustrates the true potential of wind energy. The Nova Scotia Department of Energy website explains that "every megawatt of wind energy can reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 2,500 tonnes per year—enough clean energy to power 350–400 Nova Scotian homes."
Today wind turbines are more affordable than ever, and some can even operate in temperatures as cold as -40 degrees celsius making them a viable option for Canada's northern communities. With government programs like Northern REACHE off grid communities can apply for renewable energy projects and energy storage batteries that suit their needs.
As we have seen with Beaubassin Mi'kmaq Wind Management, it is entirely possible to power entire communities with wind power and then some. Wind turbines can provide a clean, dependable energy source that would dramatically increase quality of life, further opportunities for economic development and revitalize communities.