Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation councillor Dana Tizya-Tramm speaks during an announcement of a $6.5-million solar power project for Old Crow while VGFN Chief Bruce Charlie and Wayne Stensby, managing director of electricity for ATCO Electric Yukon look on. (Kallan Lyons/Yukon News)

Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation plugs in Old Crow solar power project

‘We talk about owning our own community so this is exciting’

The Vuntut Gwitchin government and ATCO Electric Yukon announced on June 20 an electricity purchase agreement for a 940-kW solar array that the First Nation will own and operate over a 25-year period.

The Old Crow solar project will cost an estimated $6.5 million and will save 190,000 litres of diesel — that has to be flown in — per year, which Vuntut Gwitchin said is the equivalent of taking 140 cars off the road.

This is the first purchasing agreement in the North to meet 100 per cent of the community’s electricity need through renewable energy during the summer. On sunny days, the diesel generator will be turned off.

Last December, Old Crow faced a fuel shortage after the delayed opening of the ice bridge on the Dempster Highway. The fuel was transported and flown from Dawson City instead of Fort McPherson, N.W.T., at “significantly higher costs,” said Vuntut Gwitchin Chief Bruce Charlie at the Canadian Electricity Association Symposium on June 20.

“Developing renewable … electrical generation that does not rely on the transport or burning of fossil fuels will increase our energy security and long term sustainability of our community, and will decrease the environmental threat of transporting fuel long distance by air,” he said.

Construction of the solar site will begin this year. The location allows residents to continue picking berries alongside the solar array, a value identified by the community.

“This is another indication of how self-governing First Nations … can weave newer technologies into our communities that uphold traditional values,” said Dana Tizya-Tramm, councillor with the Vuntut Gwitchin Government.

Project development began in 2013. The project required a Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Board assessment and feasibility study. The Vuntut Gwitchin government also acquired all the necessary permits for a large-scale solar project. ATCO came on board after last year’s renewable energy conference.

“That was really the time where we kind of rolled up our sleeves and got teams together and said let’s get after this,” said Doug Tenney, ATCO’s vice-president of northern development.

The project is funded by the Yukon and federal governments and Strategic Industries Development Fund, with additional funding expected to come through in August.

Once the loans are paid off, the solar farm will generate $400,000 a year for the community, said Charlie.

A battery energy storage system and micro-grid controller will be installed in spring 2019. Since the diesel generator will be shut down when it’s sunny, the community needs a backup in the event of a cloudy day. The battery will stabilize and help store power supply until the generator is turned back on.

“Overall in the year, on average, we’re talking about displacing about 24 per cent of the diesel consumption” in Old Crow, said project consultant Alexandre Vigneault.

Researchers from Yukon College are studying the solar panel’s performance. One aspect of their research is performing grid impact studies.

In a simulation trial, the research group assessed the amount of solar energy the Old Crow array could handle. The study showed the system required battery storage to work properly.

“It was serendipitous to the timing of the program and how both of us would benefit from this partnership of studying the Old Crow solar project,” said Michael Ross, the industrial research chair in northern energy innovation for the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council.

Now that the impact study is complete, he said researchers will continue to provide technical support to the community and monitor the system once it’s installed.

The solar project is Yukon Research Centre’s first grid impact study, but Ross said there are more to come. The centre is working with all three territorial utilities to identify communities throughout the North who want to use renewables to reduce diesel.

The research team met regularly with both ATCO and Vuntut Gwitchin to talk about the project’s development, said Ross.

“We weren’t there to tell the community what to do because then it becomes our project and not theirs … so everything was their design, we were just there to make sure from a technical standpoint that it all worked,” he said.

Tenney said ATCO wants to help Old Crow fully convert to renewable energy.

“Now that we have a partnership we’re looking at other forms, so maybe wind’s going to be in the mix soon.”

Charlie said the community wants to lead its own economic development

“We talk about owning our own community … so this is exciting,” he said. “This partnership is going to go a long way and people are going to learn and they’re going to want to get involved.”

Contact Kallan Lyons kallan.lyons@yukon-news.com

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