Inukjuak is one of more than 200 remote communities – mostly indigenous – in Canada that relies on diesel generators for electricity. The town of 1,821 mostly Inuit residents, located in northern Quebec, is not accessible by road, only by expensive flights and boats – when the rivers are not frozen over. Like many other supplies that come by tankers, the energy residents consume is transported over Hudson’s Bay during the summer season.

The town is not connected to the main power grid. Instead, the electricity comes from polluting diesel generators. This dependence has negative consequences for the community, not only in terms of air pollution but also the threats to public health and the local environment. In 2015, an error made while transferring diesel resulted in 13,500 litres spilling into the ground in Inukjuak. A disaster for a community that relies on land and water for a large part of its food supply.

The Northern village of Inukjuak in Nunavik, Quebec, is now dependent on diesel generators for their energy but will soon have hydropower for electricity and heating.
The Northern village of Inukjuak in Nunavik, Quebec, is now dependent on diesel generators for its energy but will soon have hydropower for electricity and heating. (Photo by Gabriel Lacoste-Piotte via Shutterstock)

However, a community-driven renewable energy microgrid could soon end Inukjuak’s dependence on diesel. About 10km north-east of Inukjuak, on the Innuksuac River, the Innavik Hydro Project is under construction. The 7.5MW project could completely replace the diesel needs for electricity and heating in the community, reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 700,000 tonnes over 40 years, according to Hydro-Québec, a public utility serving the province of Quebec.

The Innavik Hydro Project is a run-of-river project, meaning that it has little or no water storage and that the plant is subject to seasonal river flows. Because there is less disturbance to natural waterways, these projects are better for riparian habitats and wildlife compared with traditional hydroelectric dams.

Other than replacing diesel with hydropower, hiring priority for construction and operating jobs is given to local candidates, the revenues generated by the project will be used for several community support funds, and excess energy can be used to power a greenhouse in Inukjuak. However, diesel generators will not completely disappear from the town as they will still be on standby as a backup source.

Community-driven renewable microgrid

Eric Atagotaaluk, the director of the Pituvik Landholding Corporation, initiated the hydro project more than a decade ago. In the early 2000s, Hydro-Québec was looking into wind power for the town, and the community made clear it wanted to be involved in any future renewable project. Wind turbines turned out not to be the best solution. However, Atagotaaluk remembered the same company had done similar resource assessment studies for the nearby river.

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“They were willing to share the information if we would consider hydro energy,” he explains. “So we went back to our community members and had majority support to do a feasibility study. That is how it all started.”

Pituvik teamed up with Quebec-based renewable energy developer Innergex, but it took a while before the project reached the construction phase. Both the negotiations for the power purchase agreement with the utility corporation and the environmental assessment were lengthy processes. The environmental assessment was especially important since the community was concerned about the impact the new hydropower plant could have.

“Certain community members were concerned, and understandably so,” explains Atagotaaluk. “The project is located just above our community’s water treatment plant – so water quality was a concern.”

Many of the concerns about the environmental impact can be traced back to the James Bay Project, a series of hydropower stations constructed by Hydro-Québec in the second half of the 20th century on the La Grande River. Construction began without informing or consulting the indigenous people living in the area, and traditional hunting and trapping grounds were built on or flooded. The creation of reservoirs changed the dynamics of the land, contaminated waters in the James Bay area with mercury released from soil in reservoirs, negatively affected wildlife populations and changed the local climate. Negotiations after Cree and Inuit initiated litigation led to the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement, which recognised the territorial and cultural rights of indigenous people in exchange for allowing the Quebec government to complete the hydroelectric dams.

“Being familiar with the negative impacts of the James Bay Project, our community members were very concerned the same thing would happen when we built a hydro project here,” says Atagotaaluk. “The environmental impacts are not comparable though. Since our project is a run-of-the-river project, we are not impacting the flow of the river. The scale is completely different too, of course.”

Another big difference was the involvement of the indigenous community in the development. Without an Inuit-owned company owning half of the project and the continuous involvement of the community, Atagotaaluk doubts there would have been as much support. The project is estimated to be completed by March 2023.

Indigenous communities as major drivers of Canadian clean energy

The Innavik Hydro Project is one of the projects that has paved the way for other indigenous community-driven renewable microgrids. In the decade since Pituvik started the project, indigenous communities have become leaders in Canada’s clean energy transition. According to a report by the Indigenous Clean Energy Social Enterprise (ICE), a non-profit platform that promotes indigenous inclusion in Canada’s energy transition, indigenous communities and enterprises are the largest single owner of clean energy assets apart from the crown and private utilities in Canada. Nearly 200 medium-to-large renewable projects and as many as 2,100 micro or small renewable systems with indigenous leadership or partnerships are in operation or the last stages of development across Canada.

Three major factors contributed to indigenous communities being at the forefront of the transition in Canada, says Chris Henderson, executive director at ICE.

“There is a natural affinity and congruence of clean energy with indigenous traditions,” he explains. “So using energy that is renewable from the sun, the wind and the water is much more consistent with indigenous values for ecology, for the protection of wildlife or habitat, for fisheries, and for medicines, and so indigenous communities have wanted to be in this space for a while.”

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Initially, in the early 2000s, there were just a few pioneering communities that started in the renewable energy space, but two other factors accelerated the indigenous involvement. First, the local and provincial governments wanted to accelerate renewable energy in the Canadian energy system. The increased demand created interest in independent power projects. Second, indigenous rights are stronger now in Canada.

“The assertion of the rights of indigenous people have given more power to indigenous people to really say, look, if you are planning to develop renewable energy on our lands and waters, we want to approve and be a part of that,” says Henderson.

When Henderson first started looking into where clean energy projects involving indigenous people would be a good fit, the logical first step was to help remote communities reduce diesel dependency. However, it did not immediately take off due to the many hurdles, mostly related to costs.

“The real acceleration has been in the last five years, particularly now that the federal government of Canada has supported fiscal measures to deal with project planning to reduce capital cost hurdles,” explains Henderson.

Understanding high costs and risks

The Clean Energy for Rural and Remote Communities programme specifically targets indigenous, remote and rural communities across Canada, with $300m available until 2027 for clean energy projects. Additionally, the Indigenous Off-Diesel Initiative offers training and funding for remote indigenous communities that rely on diesel or fossil fuels, and there are more than 100 federal indigenous climate and environmental funding programmes. Government funding and policies have proved essential for the Innavik Hydro Project as well. Especially in remote communities like Inukjuak, construction costs can be very high. The construction costs for the hydro project are estimated at almost $128m.

“Since we are a small community, we don’t have a lot of financial resources, so we are dependent on government programmes,” says Atagotaaluk. “There were certainly challenges of learning and understanding the high costs and the risks. For large materials to be delivered to our location, the only way is to ship them with tankers, and we have a very small window for that. Finding people who understand the requirements to develop a project in such a remote place was a major challenge.”

In the Inukjuak case, the developers hired their own tankers to transport materials during the summer season, but for developers without experience in similar microgrid projects, the risks and costs could look daunting. It is one of the reasons ICE is providing a platform where it shares the experiences of communities and developers across Canada. The non-profit has also prepared resources for both national and international professionals and will present at next month’s COP27 summit to share its knowledge with attendees. If there is one big takeaway from their experience, Henderson argues that just one resource isn’t going to cut it.

“One training programme or one set of webinars is just not going to do it. There has be long-term and comprehensive support for communities, as well as influencing how government policies and fiscal frameworks are structured,” he says. “You have got to support community governance, community engagement. You have got to build community capacity, look at trade development and skills, look at partnership and funding models and the communications around all that.”

He adds: “This is a global issue. Remote communities that are diesel dependent or don’t have access to reliable power are a global issue – and those communities are disproportionally socially vulnerable, like indigenous communities. That is one of the reasons why we are active with the COP; there is a supportive and sharing role we can offer in terms of how indigenous people have become major clean energy players in Canada.”