An off-grid community goes solar, and gets closer to its roots
'My community is the last to modernize and that gives us a lot of advantages,' says David Codzi
One of the last communities in the N.W.T. to get electricity is becoming a model for other Northern communities looking to reduce their dependence on fossil fuels.
Colville Lake, pop. 160 and roughly 50 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle, only got its first power plant in the early 1990s.
This week, it officially opened a unique solar/diesel hybrid system the Northwest Territories Power Corporation says is the first of its kind in Canada for an off-grid community.
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"(It's) geared us toward looking at things that are going to make our lives better, to make it work for ourselves."
Designed by the territory's power corporation, the new system is poised to reduce the community's reliance on imported diesel fuel by 40 per cent. That's roughly three fewer truckloads of fuel that have to be transported hundreds of kilometres over ice roads each winter.
"We're burning a lot of fuel," Codzi says. "We've got to start moving away from having those long supply lines and having solar panels — it does that to a small degree."
Log cabins and moss
Codzi, 41, spent part of his childhood living in his grandfather's home made of logs with cardboard and moss for insulation.
Colville Lake had always been a gathering and harvesting area for the K'asho Got'ine Dene.
In the early 1960s, a lone priest established a church in the area, prompting more people to settle year round, and forming a community that relied on hunting, fishing and traditional values — and resisted modern trappings such as piped water and telephones.
Only in the last decade has the community made the leap to modernize, bringing in 21st century comforts like internet and cellphones.
"Our independence geared us toward looking at things that are going to make our lives better to make it work for ourselves," Codzi says.
Twin Otters and fuel spills
The new $8-million plant automatically flips between solar and the generators depending on availability and efficiency.
Plant superintendent Alvin Orlias can now sip his afternoon coffee just steps away — no ear protection required.
"I feel proud this small community has enough vision and foresight to agree to this," he says.
In the early days — before the ice road — Orlias says they used to fly in fuel in a Twin Otter. The plane carried fuel bags, which were then piped through a hose from the plane to the tank — a process Orlias says was not only a lot of work, but also carried high risk of a spill.
"This is a big change," he says, recalling when diesel generators roared 24 hours a day.
"You don't smell diesel at all when it's sunny. There's birds chirping."
A model to the North
Since December there's only been two power outages in Colville Lake, a steep decrease from the dozens the town experienced annually in the past.
Emanuel DaRosa, president of the Northwest Territories Power Corporation, says the project has generated interest from many communities in the Canadian Arctic, almost all of which rely on diesel generators for power.
Interest has also come in from the United States, Finland and Denmark.
"There is a lot of desire to actually come here and visit and look at our plant," he says. "The energy is being produced locally here, opposed from being imported from foreign countries."
'We don't even know it's running'
Joseph Kochon hears and smells the difference the new system is making as he cuts wood near his home.
"We barely hear the power plant. We don't even know if it's running or not," he says.
Kochon says the elders who founded the community — rooted in self-reliance — would be proud.
"At least they didn't speak for nothing. They always advised the community there's got to be another way of producing energy."