Ta'an Kwäch'än Council, the Da Daghay Development Corporation, and the Yukon Geological Survey have formed a new partnership to explore the potential for geothermal energy projects on settlement land near Whitehorse.
The project will measure deep geothermal temperatures near Takhini Hot Springs for up to a year.
"[Ta'an Kwäch'än] have been on that land for thousands of years, and that area has been known to have that type of activity," said Ben Asquith, CEO of Da Daghay, the First Nation's development arm.
"Obviously with Takhini Hot Springs being there, that's good indicator there's hot water down there."
The first stage of the project is already underway. On Oct. 30, crews began drilling a 500-metre deep monitoring well on settlement land three kilometres west of the hot springs. It will be the deepest monitoring well of its kind in the territory.
Working 24 hours a day, on two 12-hour shifts, the proponents expect to reach their target depth before the end of November. Once complete, a thermistor string installed in the well will collect ground temperature data for a year.
The project has a budget of $490,000, jointly funded by the Yukon government and the federal Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency (CanNor).
The information collected will help "forecast the potential that geothermal might offer to Yukon's energy mix," according to a statement from Minister of Energy, Mines and Resources Ranj Pillai.
'We're looking at it from an economic development standpoint'
Ta'an Kwäch'än will also be watching the results closely, but for different reasons.
"We're looking at it from an economic development standpoint, and whether or not it would be feasible to put a greenhouse there. Or — big, big picture — looking at doing an energy plant," said Asquith.
There are no geothermal power plants in Canada yet, but federal research shows a large amount of untapped potential in the western provinces and territories. The U.S. is the top producer of geothermal electricity in the world.
Asquith says they have already been approached by companies interested in investing in geothermal developments.
"Everyone is really excited to see what the temperature is going to come in at," he said. He says steam-powered turbines in geothermal power plants need temperatures around 49 C.
"We're always looking at trying to find renewable energy or ways we can reduce our footprint on the environment. The excitement is, if we can produce our own energy or heat, economically it would do quite well for the First Nation, but then we're also not relying on oil or diesel," said Asquith.
According to Asquith, all contracts and employees for the project have been locally sourced.
'Taking control of the energy beneath their feet'
The Canadian Geothermal Energy Association (CanGEA) has been working closely with the Yukon government to map existing geothermal data.
"We're very excited to see local First Nations involved, especially through the development corporation, taking notes and taking control of the energy beneath their feet," said CanGEA chair Alison Thompson.
"We think that they're going to find good results, very promising results, and this will lead to more commercial drilling and more projects."
Thompson says geothermal projects are already underway in Saskatchewan, Alberta and B.C.
"So you see the three provinces below Yukon are all now actively developing geothermal resources. One or more of them may be producing power, and certainly heat, by 2018."
"We expect through this drilling you'll be enthusiastically moving forward towards more projects" in the next one to three years, said Thompson.
"Places like America, New Zealand and Iceland have been producing for, in some cases, over 50 years. These are not things we have to re-invent the wheel on. These are things we can transfer over from other producing regions of the world."