Atlin is off diesel.
On April 1 the community’s generators, which spewed 4,400 tonnes of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere annually, fell silent.
The community’s run-of-river hydro project, after eight years in the making, had hummed online.
The microhydro project will displace the burning of 1.3 million litres of diesel annually. It’s capable of generating 2.3 megawatts of power, which is more than Atlin needs.
The project is owned and operated by Xeitl (pronounced “shayckl”) Limited Partnership, which is in turn owned by the Taku Tlingit First Nation.
“This is, as far as I know, the first, 100 per cent aboriginal-owned hydro project in the world,” said CEO Peter Kirby.
Xeitl has a 25-year agreement to sell power to BC Hydro. The First Nation expects to spend the next decade repaying the project’s capital costs, but while doing so it should have enough revenue left over to keep a small annual profit, said Kirby.
He won’t disclose the project’s final cost, other than it well exceeds the First Nation’s original estimate of $10 million.
“At the end of the day, we’re a private company,” he said.
But the First Nation is optimistic enough about its hydro revenues that it’s getting ready for a big windfall.
It’s preparing to change its governance structure by putting up a wall between its political and corporate leaders, to prevent political interference in hydro operations.
And it’s begun asking members what to do with surplus hydro cash.
Some want a cheque in the mail. But most want to see the profits invested in a trust fund, according to a recent survey.
Micro-hydro projects are far less obtrusive than conventional hydro-electric dams.
They do not necessarily require the damming of rivers, or the flooding of valleys to form reservoirs.
In Atlin’s case, a fraction of water is sucked from Pine Creek into a 48-inch pipeline, then tumbles downhill for 3.9 kilometres.
Gravity speeds up the water’s flow so that by the time it reaches the powerhouse it has enough force to drive the turbines.
It’s then released back into the river at the confluence of Pine and Spruce creeks.
Atlin expects to have one megawatt of surplus power. Preferably, they’d like to run a power line to the Yukon and sell it to us.
But Yukon’s laws currently prohibit Yukon Energy from purchasing energy from independent power producers. And, legal difficulties aside, the public utility isn’t interested in building a transmission line to Atlin, said spokesperson Janet Patterson.
For so little power, it wouldn’t be worth the cost, she said.
Another option for Atlin would be to sell its surplus power to nearby mines.
A similar micro-dam is proposed by Yukon’s Carcross-Tagish First Nation, which is studying the feasibility of building a micro-hydro dam at Choutla Creek.
But, again, Yukon’s laws will need to change if the First Nation wants to put its surplus power on the grid.
Atlin’s diesel generators won’t be entirely silent. They will cycle once a month to ensure they’re in working condition as a back-up power source.
But the last diesel supply that was dropped off in March is expected to last for a long time to come.
Just as important for Kirby, the project demonstrates that little First Nations can build and operate big projects, and work towards becoming self-sufficient in doing so, he said.
“If you have a good core of people in your community, you can do these projects.”
Contact John Thompson at