Toronto Star –
A First Nation south of Edmonton has taken back control over their own energy with solar panels.
Councillor Desmond Bull
MASKWACIS—The spring sun beaming down, Lionel Twins bends to brush recently fallen snow off the solar panel at his feet, one of dozens that help power the lights at the Louis Bull Tribe’s administration building.
As he does his rounds, he explains that it’s important to keep the panels clean so they can absorb as much sunlight as possible, a task that has required constant snow removal since the panels were first installed on the First Nation in December.
In October 2016, the Alberta government announced $2.5 million in funding for the Alberta Indigenous Solar Program, and over the last year they’ve handed out up to $200,000 each for 18 different projects.
Louis Bull, which is one of the four nations south of Edmonton collectively known as Maskwacis, got $200,000 in funding from the province. They used that, in addition to a mix of national grants and corporate sponsors, to install 750 solar panels on public buildings.
The solar panels and accompanying hardware are now completely owned by the tribe, putting much of the First Nations’ energy back in their hands in an environmentally friendly first.
Twins, who grew up in the neighbouring Ermineskin Cree Nation but is originally from Louis Bull Tribe, is the point person for maintenance. He’s one of 13 band members who were trained to install, maintain and monitor solar panels.
It’s a long way from the days when the former millwright would leave home for jobs in Cold Lake and Pigeon Lake, toiling away in gas plants and oilfields that he recalls as “hot, dirty and full of heavy work”.
“I was working there a long time, and I could see we were polluting the environment with all the things we were working with,” Twins says of his 13 years working as a millwright. “And now I’ve come back here and it’s totally different — We’re harnessing the sun.”
For Twins, the new job is a family affair: his grandson Elijah also participated in a five-day training program that equipped him with new skills and a source of income.
But there’s also an important cultural component that Twins doesn’t discount.
“It’s really good to see that he’s following his footsteps of his grandpa, and helping with the environment,” Twins said. “It gives these youth the opportunity to have an insight into renewable energy … That’s the main thing, the power of the sun, that’s how we were raised in our culture – to respect Mother Earth.”
The administration building is one of eight in Louis Bull Tribe that have been fitted with solar panels. Altogether, they are expected to generate 88,000 kilowatt hours per year, which is the same amount of power consumed by 57 per cent of the community’s homes.
The panels are also expected to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by roughly 1,408 tonnes per year.
In addition to cutting emissions and creating employment for band members, it’s also driving down their utility bills – they estimate that they’ll save between $6,000 and $18,000 a year.
“That money can be diverted into a lot of our programs that are lacking that funding,” such as professional development and further training for band members, says Desmond Bull, a Louis Bull Tribe councillor and long-time resident who started the project back in 2013, although installations did not start until 2015-2016.
“We definitely want to go net zero … When you have the fundamental understanding of cultivating your own energy for your own community, you’re providing for our own community, so you don’t have to rely on the large utility scale programs,” he added.
There are plans to install solar panels on the rest of the First Nation’s public buildings, such as Kisipatnahk School, as well as private businesses, including their gas bar and golf resort.
But that’s just the first step. As the systems power up, Bull foresees they will have excess energy they can turn for a profit.
“Do we want to sell it off as a utility program for neighbours? Most definitely … I’m thinking on a grander scale,” Bull said.
For the initial installations in Louis Bull, Gridworks Energy, an Edmonton-based solar panel installation and design company, trained the 13 tribe members. Trainees required a minimum Grade 10 education, as well as safety certification.
Successful applicants ranged from people in their early 20s to late 50s, including students fresh out of post-secondary and tradespeople such as electricians, mechanics and partners.
“It just shows how this job can accommodate anyone from any type of background,” Bull said.
But challenges remain. Bull does not see the solar energy problem as a magical solution to employment challenges in the First Nation, noting that only about 50 per cent of the trainees continued in solar panel installations after the initial projects.
He’d like to get more young people on board, but recognizes the onus is on them to get the proper credentials and confidence to train in the program, a challenge in many First Nations communities.
“The demographic is a lot younger and a lot of them are getting into trouble at a very young age. And when they get into trouble at a very young age, they have a criminal record, and that criminal record follows them,” Bull said.
“It makes them unbondable for certain jobs, and it creates liabilities where people don’t want to look at them as an opportunity to create an employee with.”
He’d like to see the provincial school curriculum tailored to make it easier to get into the trades, and to encourage young people to see it as a viable career option.
It’s a message Twins tries to pass onto youth — including his grandchildren — in Louis Bull.
“That’s what I tell them — this is a small reservation, it’s a vast world out there, go venture out, there’s lots of work, get some knowledge,” Twins said.
After the initial installations on the First Nation’s adult training centre, fire hall, Head Start program centre and health centre, Louis Bull then collaborated with 10 people from Iron & Earth, an organization that retrains oil and gas workers in the renewable energy sector, to install 32 solar panels on the Louis Bull daycare.
Ian Wilson, director of Iron & Earth’s Edmonton chapter, said he was honoured to take part in the installations at Louis Bull. He said his organization was created as a response to the downturn in the price of oil and the ensuing layoffs in the province.
“If there’s not a lot of work in oil and gas, we should have our workers on board (with renewable energy) … it’ll put a lot of people back to work,” he said.
One of those people is Wesley Bull, an out-of-work journeyman mechanic of 15 years who repurposed his skills for solar panel installations.
“It helped me quite a bit, it gave me the opportunity if I want to (continue pursuing) that direction,” he said. “Because I’ve already got the experience.”
He’s looking forward to taking part in more installations on the First Nation, but also hopes to take those skills outside of Louis Bull.
“If it doesn’t work out here, I can look at other places … I think it will help greatly, and not just economically,” he said. “You can heat the whole house without any gas or oil. We don’t have to depend on EPCOR or Fortis.”
For Coun. Bull, self-determination and less reliance on outside sources of energy is an important part of the project.
“For so long as First Nations, we’ve been left out the economic prosperity,” Bull said. “When it comes to industry, or natural resource exploration, we were never really never involved other than getting a kickback … until now.”