After living in the shadow of the oilsands for over four decades, people in Fort Chipewyan are hoping the giant fossil fuel industry located upstream near Fort McMurray will help shed a more positive light on the community by funding a groundbreaking residential solar energy project.
Members of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation (ACFN), led by ACFN member and founder of the Fort Chipewyan Renewable Energy Society Mike Mercredi, are currently in talks with Suncor Energy about financing a solar project that would see panels installed on every ACFN household and building in the community – approximately half of the hamlet’s 700 homes.
“It would save them a lot of money, for one. In a place of high cost of living and where power bills are $300-$400 a month, that’s just money they’re going to save,” Mercredi told The Journal. “We’re isolated and in an area that’s not easily accessible, so fuels are costly. It’s just using common sense that if we had something that didn’t cost so much, maybe it will work for us.”
Mercredi, who has been dreaming of bringing renewable energies to the remote northern Alberta community for years, said his motivation is not only to lower costs of living for people right now, but to instill a new way of looking at energy sources – and fuel dependency – in the younger generations.
“Our generation is so used to flicking on the light and knowing that it’s coming from a power generator that’s powered by diesel, which is a fossil fuel. So if we can plant in the next generation’s head that the light they flicked on came from the sun and from the land and not from a non-renewable resource, then hopefully that’s going to change their conscious thinking about how we can do things in the future,” he said.
“It’s basically helping the next generation move ahead – the tools to step further, rather than us stepping in the same mud puddle.”
And in a community where many people work for the nearby oilsands industry despite its impacts on the water, land and traditional livelihoods, Mercredi said demonstrating that a viable alternative exists is important.
“It’s showing our independence a little bit,” he said.
Solar could power whole community
Mercredi conducted his own renewable energy feasibility study for the community years ago with the help of Keepers of the Athabasca, a local environmental organization, who also got the Pembina Institute on board to do an energy audit of Fort Chipewyan.
The findings showed strong potential for solar in the community.
“If we were able to switch over entirely, solar would be able to power the entire community for free,” Mercredi said.
According to Mercredi, wind could account for about 71 per cent of Fort Chipewyan’s power annually, though an even better solution would be a run of the river, small-scale hydro turbine that would require a lot more funding to get off the ground.
Beyond that, there’s potential for geothermal heating and power from biogas capture at the landfill, Mercredi said.
“There are other sources that haven’t been touched, but right now we’re focusing on solar because it’s viable,” he said.
ACFN getting ball rolling this spring
The residential solar project would be part of the First Nation’s impact benefit agreement with Suncor, which has funded things like community playgrounds in the past.
Negotiating such impact benefit agreements with industry can take years, said Mercredi, who noted the ball is now in the company’s court.
That said, the community isn’t about to sit around and wait to get things rolling. In his role with the renewables society, Mercredi already managed to secure a $7,500 grant from the Alberta Ecotrust Foundation.
That money will go to training. Having teamed up with Randall Benson of Gridworks Energy Group, a Métis solar energy company in the McMurray area, Mercredi said around six interested community members will soon learn everything they need to know about installing solar panels.
“Part of it is also creating employment,” Mercredi said. “If we get the money from Suncor to do the ACFN members’ homes, then our community members will be the ones that will be doing the installation.”
Mercredi said ACFN has already purchased solar panels for its Youth and Elder Lodge, to be installed in time for this summer with Gridworks, and the new elders’ care facility may also follow suit.
Those could be aided by private funding from Tom Steyer, a wealthy climate change activist from California known as the “green billionaire,” who was recently in Fort Chipewyan to see how his money could help the community.
If those projects are successful – and if Suncor comes on board with ACFN’s proposal – Mercredi said the initiative could spread like a wave across the community, sparking similar action by the Mikisew Cree First Nation and the Fort Chipewyan Metis, and beyond.
“I can share with them how we all got it started, got it going, and how to get the funding,” Mercredi said. “And if the idea works, there’s so many other isolated First Nations communities in Northern Canada. If it works here, it’s going to work there.”