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Nestled on the shores of Hudson Bay, the most northern First Nation in Ontario has taken a big step toward energy independence.
Fort Severn powered up its 300-kilowatt solar system earlier this month, a project that will help the First Nation begin its transition off diesel fuel and generate money for the community.
“This community is now being powered by the solar farm. Right now, the sun is out, it’s nice and sunny,” Chief Paul Burke told CBC News over the phone from the First Nation of about 550 people, located 850 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, Ont.
As a First Nation that is directly affected by the rapidly changing northern environment, Chief Burke says Fort Severn is doing its part to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions and address climate change.
“It’s not just my community. I am showing the world, if I can do this here, being so remote, we can do this anywhere.”
The solar project is expected to displace about 130,000 litres of diesel fuel on an annual basis, according to Michael Wrinch, the project manager and president of Hedgehog Technologies.
But when you consider that the diesel fuel is often flown to the remote First Nation — especially given that fluctuating temperatures have meant inconsistent ice road access — Wrinch said up to 400,000 litres of fuel could be saved thanks to this one project.
“It’s a success story for a diesel reduction point of view, and a success story for the community, just showing that they can get things done in remote and difficult locations,” Wrinch said.
Many hurdles overcome
To make the solar project happen, Chief Burke says it was an uphill battle from the moment he was first elected in 2016.
He says he had to deal with what he describes as mismanagement of the project, seek new sources of funding, and then hire a new project manager.
“If you want something for your community, you got to go and get it,” he said. “You can’t just sit there twiddling your thumbs and waiting for something to happen.
“So that’s what I did.”
Once all those pieces were in line, the chief and the engineers working on the project had to contend with just how difficult it is to get to the community.
It’s a factor that can’t be understated.
The only way to get things into Fort Severn is by plane, a once-a-year barge loaded 800 kilometres away on the James Bay coast — a barge that has been cancelled in the past — or via the Wapusk Trail, thought to be the world’s longest winter road at more than 750 kilometres.
“Say you don’t have enough wire or you’re missing a special tool. Well, you immediately have to charter a plane three hours south to pick something up and then fly back,” Wrinch said.
“If you forget anything, it’s an expensive mistake. And then next is getting the big items up there.”
He said the day the engineering team and community members went to install the “electrical house,” a central piece of the solar system, there was a blizzard.
If the equipment broke while being installed, Wrinch said that could’ve ended the project right then.
“I’m from Vancouver, so I was worried. But they’re comfortable in the snow. They said, ‘no problem, let’s go,'” Wrinch recalled.
Solar brings economic benefits to Fort Severn
Now that it’s installed, Chief Paul Burke said he expects it will generate between $250,000 to $350,000, depending on the amount of sun.
“It gives us a little more control over our own finances. It gives us money to spend the way we want,” Burke said.
And he already knows where it’s all going.
“I’ve committed the money to build homes. Nothing else.”
Fort Severn needs about 40 new homes, Burke said, to address the current shortage.
But the project is also generating jobs in the First Nation.
Owen Miles is the community’s energy champion and a technician for the solar project. He’s been employed in its construction for the last several years, and is now training to become an electrician in Fort Severn.
Inspired by the work in the First Nation, Miles said he’s now looking for grants to continue the work of transforming Fort Severn’s energy generation, and hopes to install solar panels at the local school and at other community buildings.
Meanwhile Chief Burke says he’s already looking at the next big project: wind power.