Yukonomist: Getting lapped by the Taku River Tlingit

Yukonomist Keith Halliday

Suppose you were a small Indigenous community in the wilds of northwestern Canada, literally at the end of a long gravel road. You were a tiny rounding error in the accounts of the giant capitalist behemoths that supply your necessities, including the $40-billion-utility that sells you your electricity.

What would you do?

How about beating them at their own game?

And not once, but twice.

I’m talking about the Taku River Tlingit and their burgeoning power empire.

Way back in 2007, they started building a nice little 2.1 megawatt run-of-river power station along Atlin’s Pine Creek. They signed a 25-year deal to sell power to BC Hydro, who paid a bit more than the going rate in the rest of B.C. since the new facility allowed them to dramatically slash diesel use in off-grid Atlin. The certainty of this contract allowed the First Nation to win some grant funding from various government agencies, and some serious loans from a big insurance company.

According to a report on the project by the Conference Board, a Southern think tank, the average annual financial benefit of the plant to the First Nation in the years that followed was around $450,000.

So far, so good. Statistics Canada estimates there are about 140 Taku River Tlingit citizens. The money isn’t distributed directly to citizens like Alaska’s dividend, but it still works out to $3,200 per person per year for the First Nation to spend on its priorities. Not bad.

But it gets better. They then noticed they were only 93 kilometres from the grid of a triangular-shaped northern territory that builds renewable power plants at the speed of maple syrup flowing uphill at 40 below.

So, a few years ago, a joint clan meeting approved investing $450,000 in the Atlin hydro expansion project. According to project documents filed with the B.C. government, the project will cost around $120 million. Once a connection to the Yukon grid up the Atlin road is complete, it will add 45 gigawatt hours of electricity to the Yukon grid. This will boost our power by about eight per cent, or the same amount used by 3,750 homes.

According to press releases in 2021, the First Nation has a $2.5 million grant from the feds and is in advanced discussions with Yukon Energy to buy the power. The project documents say that early estimates are for an annual dividend of $1.3 million per year.

That’s $9,300 per person per year. Even better.

The Taku River Tlingit have given us a case study in capitalism. You get some money and invest it. Then you make some profits, and you invest those, and make even more money. And so on.

There are also all kinds of other benefits such as local jobs, reduced greenhouse gas emissions, and profits that can be spent on community projects.

For Taku River Tlingit citizens, it also makes driving from Atlin to Whitehorse more beautiful at night. As they approach Whitehorse, they’ll be able to see the bright lights of the big city from miles away. It’s the glow of money headed their way.

However, they have to cope with the embarrassment of having already skated around the speedskating track twice while the rest of the competitors are still putting on their skates.

How many multi-megawatt micro-hydro projects has the Yukon government built since Mayo B in 2011? Zero. How many have Yukon First Nations built since BC Hydro started writing cheques to the Taku River Tlingit in 2009? Zero.

The good news is that the race isn’t over. That eight per cent boost in our power from Atlin Phase 2 is barely enough to keep up with our growing population. The Yukon government forecasts the population will rise around seven per cent from 2000 to 2025, and power usage will go up even more if they go for electric cars and heat.

Many more such projects will be needed as we switch away from fossil fuels.

The project is arousing controversy in Atlin. The project documents say there will be serious effects on the grayling population. Trees will be cut down. Land and wetlands will be disturbed. There will be noise from the turbines and other impacts.

This won’t be much solace to those living along Pine Creek who won’t be enjoying a share of the project’s profits, but from an energy planner’s point of view there aren’t many places to put a renewable power plant that would be better.

This one already has an existing power plant, plus a road, and traverses areas that have already been disturbed by human activity. It would be harder to get approval for a greenfield windfarm or hydro plant in untouched wilderness.

If we can’t build a power plant in such a place, we will have a hard time finding anywhere to build one.

The alternative is diesel or natural gas, which just exports the environmental impact to other parts of the world via global warming. Or, someday, small modular nuclear reactors may be an option.

The reaction I have from reading the Atlin expansion environmental-impact documents is not that we should stop the project. It’s that we need 10 more like it.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist, author of the Aurore of the Yukon youth adventure novels and co-host of the Klondike Gold Rush History podcast. He is a Ma Murray award-winner for best columnist.