By Maura Forrest
July 17, 2014
A small community in northern Alberta wants to go solar with help from local oil sands operators. Fort Chipewyan, a community of 1,000, wants solar panels for up to half of its 700 homes – all of those belonging to the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, one of the community’s three indigenous groups.
The initiative is part cost-saving strategy, but also a protest against the community’s financial dependence on the oil sands. Many local businesses provide clean-up and waste management services for oil-sands companies.
“We’re telling people about the destructiveness of the tar-sands industry. But what options are we providing them with?” said Jesse Cardinal, a coordinator with the non-profit Keepers of the Athabasca, in an interview with VueWeekly.com.
The idea to go solar was born after a recent study concluded that the entire community could be powered by solar energy. Mike Mercredi, founder of the Fort Chipewyan Renewable Energy Society, believes the switch to solar would ultimately save the community money.
“We’re isolated and in an area that’s not easily accessible, so fuels are costly,” he said in an interview with the Northern Journal. “It’s just using common sense that if we had something that didn’t cost so much, maybe it will work for us.”
But the start-up cost of building solar panels is a major stumbling block for the small community. The first goal is to install solar panels on the community’s elders centre, but Mercredi has had trouble finding funding even for that.
Now, he’s turning to Suncor Energy – a major oil-sands operator – to request funding for the residential solar project as part of an impact benefit agreement. But those agreements can take years to negotiate. And once finalized, they can limit the First Nation’s ability to resist new oil-sands developments.
That raises questions about whether a Suncor-sponsored solar project would really give the community independence from the oil sands. According to Cardinal, the community’s funding options are limited. He said that government programs to help with capital costs for green energy projects are hard to come by. “You have to have patience and an understanding that there’s not a lot of help from the government,” Cardinal told VueWeekly.com.
Sustainable Development Technology Canada (SDTC) is a foundation that has distributed the bulk of federal funding for clean technology since 2001. It invested close to $600 million in clean tech start-ups between 2001 and 2013. In 2013, the federal budget announced another $325 million over eight years to be distributed by SDTC.
But SDTC funding has come close to drying up several times in recent years, and the foundation has had to fight for renewed funding commitments from the government.