FIRST NATION IN NWT IS FIRST CANADIAN OFF GRID COMMUNITY TO HAVE SOLAR HYBRID SYSTEM
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By Michelle Moore
Renewable energy is on the rise in Canada. Communities big and small are harnessing Canada's windy weather conditions to power their communities thereby reducing their dependence on fossil fuels.
One of the last communities in the Northwest Territories to have electricity can now produce up to half of its power from the sun. Colville Lake started using individual diesel generators in the 1980's but it wasn't until 1990 that their first power plant was built.
On May 25, 2016, the Northwest Territories Power Corporation (NTPC) and the Government of the Northwest Territories officially opened the Colville Lake power plant. The NTPC says that this solar/battery/diesel hybrid system is the first of it's kind in Canada for an off-grid community.
Colville Lake has a population of 160 people and is located 50 km north of the Arctic Circle. It is the administrative office for the Behdzi Ahda First Nation Band where the winter season can last a solid six months from October to April. It is expected that the solar panels will be able to power the whole community in the summer months.
According to a Government of Canada study, the Northwest Territories has the highest number of people living in off grid communities in Canada, most of which use diesel fuel generators. Thirty-three of these are First Nations communities for a total of 22, 410 people.
Diesel fuel shipped to Colville Lake must travel long distances over winter ice roads only accessible for a few weeks in the winter. Communications Manager for NTPC, Doug Penderghast says that in it's first year, the solar operation has reduced the need for 37 158 litres of diesel fuel.
The new plant boasts up to 136.5 kW of solar power, battery storage, three diesel generators and a control system that allows for each power source to operate at its highest capacity. Penderghast says that in the last year, "from the entire system, 19% of generation came from the solar ray, hitting a peak of 54 % in May 2017." Two phases of construction were needed for the plant during which local contractors were used. The plant operator is also a local resident.
Like many growing off grid communities, the previous diesel generator was operating at maximum capacity which lead to many power outages throughout the year. Penderghast said that "there were no power outages in the first half of 2017," which compares to an average of 31 outages per year calculated from 2008-2013.
Senior Administrative Officer of the Behdzi Ahda First Nation Joseph Kochon, explained that Colville Lake is a growing community with new buildings being built every year or so. Kochon said that "every now and then every household is ordered to unplug all their things … because at lunch time everybody is cooking at once, so the power would kick off. But that doesn't happen anymore, a lot of things were fried and other household things, everything is really good now, it's a really good investment."
The new hybrid system replaced the old power plant which was at the end of it's lifespan. The Behdzi Ahda First Nation Band had been looking into renewable energy since 1993; attending conferences on renewable energy and communicating with other First Nations about options. The new plant was realized, in part, through the Northwest Territories Energy Action Plan, a 3-year provincial program designed to reduce overall energy costs and dependence on fossil fuels.
Kochon explains that proposals were made to the federal government and the NTPC about the previous plant which Penderghast said was the oldest one in the province. On top of the many power outages, the community found the old plant to be quite noisy. Kochon says that now "there are less power outages, that's the beauty of it, we have a whole new system set up. It's a really good investment, I guess we screamed loud enough and we were heard."
Kochon says they have been receiving a lot of visitors who want to tour the plant and take notes; "we have been getting some international interest, and a group of people from the University of Yukon who brought in people from Alaska, Finland, and Russia. People who were interested in looking at this kind of stuff."
Though the NWT Energy Action Plan has run it's course, a new federal program called Northern REACHE is now accepting applications. Northern REACHE is a $10.7 million federal program created to ease the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy for off grid communities in the north.
Stephanie Palma, media relations for Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada says that "the Northern REACHE program is funding 17 community projects that support the deployment of renewable energy in Indigenous and northern communities that rely on diesel for electricity and heating."