British Columbia

First Nation appeals to province to help cover $6.3M shortfall on $100M geothermal project

Fort Nelson First Nation Chief Sharleen Gale says if the money is not secured by March 31, 2021, $40 million of funds from the federal government will disappear. 

Chief Sharleen Gale says bulk of project funding will disappear if money isn't secured by March 31

Chief Sharleen Gale at the Clarke Lake site. Gale says northeastern B.C. is in dire need of investments in major projects. (Submitted by Chief Sharleen Gale)

The Fort Nelson First Nation in northeastern B.C. is calling on the provincial government for help with a $6.3-million shortfall on a $100-million geothermal energy project.

Chief Sharleen Gale says if the money is not secured by March 31, 2021, $40 million of funds from the federal government will disappear. 

"We're in a time crunch," Gale told CBC's What On Earth late last week. 

The Clarke Lake Geothermal Project will use existing infrastructure like roads, well pads and the occasional well from the Clarke Lake gas field located near the Fort Nelson First Nation. It's estimated it will create enough renewable energy to power 5,000 to 11,000 homes. 

Most of the project's $100-million cost has been secured through commercial financing, plus the $40 million from the federal government. The $6.3-million shortfall is for the initial phase of the project, called the proof of concept period, which will trigger the investments. 

The shortfall was recognized about six months ago as the project costs solidified. 

It's estimated that the Clarke Lake Geothermal Project would generate enough energy to power up to 11,000 homes. (B.C. Ministry of Energy, Mines and Low Carbon Innovation)

Gale says the project is "shovel ready" and would help the economically depressed northeastern region of the province, especially during the pandemic. 

She also emphasized the project will help shift the region from its dependence on fossil fuels.

"If B.C. and Canada are serious about achieving net-zero emissions targets, projects like Clarke Lake must be shown significant support," she said. 

"And, in our case, so we can show support for the inclusion of Indigenous communities in the economic mainstream of Canada by harnessing green energy." 

Permit issued in January

The planned geothermal project will create power by moving warm liquid from about 2.5 kilometres below ground to the surface. Heat from the liquid — a mix of water and minerals — is passed through a heat exchanger and transferred to a fluid that boils at a low temperature. Steam from that process is used to spin a turbine and create electricity.

The province granted the Clarke Lake project a permit January 2020, recognizing it would decrease northeastern B.C.'s reliance on fossil fuels.

The region isn't currently connected to the BC Hydro's electricity grid, according to a government statement. Power for the area is generated from fossil fuels or imported from Alberta.

The Energy, Mines and Low Carbon Innovation Ministry said it's working with the Fort Nelson First Nation and helped extend the federal government deadline from Dec. 31 so the nation could seek additional funding.

So far, the province has contributed $430,000 to the $100-million project. 

Gale says the province has been very supportive of the project so far. She hopes that support can be extended so the project can get started. 

She said COVID-19 has made it more difficult to navigate and troubleshoot the $6.3-million shortfall with her community members, many of whom don't have internet connections or the ability to meet online.

"We don't make big decisions over Zoom," she said. 

With files from Molly Segal and What on Earth?