British Columbia

Done with diesel: First Nation proposes hydro project for clean energy future

Vancouver Island's remote Hesquiaht First Nation wants to end its reliance on combustible fossil fuels as a main source of electricity in the hopes of reducing annual costs, greenhouse gases and improving the safety of community members.

Hesquiaht First Nation wants a $7M micro hydro project through park land

The remote village of Hot Springs Cove is located about an hour and a half north of Tofino. Most people access the community by boat or plane as the community's only road isn't suitable for most vehicles. (Donovan Williams)

When the power goes out, the first thing Heather Campbell does is grab a flashlight and march down the road to her father's bedside to make sure he's still alive.

Her 66-year-old dad has sleep apnea, a condition that requires nightly use of a machine that runs on electricity to make sure he continues breathing while asleep.

Life in the remote, access-by-boat village of Hot Springs Cove on Vancouver Island means living with unreliable diesel generators as a main power source, something the community is hoping to see changed by the spring of 2019.

The Hesquiaht First Nation band put forth a proposal for a $7-million micro hydro project it hopes will improve environmental and financial sustainability while also providing relief from the 24/7 noise and pollution of generators.

For the project to happen, the province has to allow it to be placed in the Maquinna Marine Provincial Park and Protected Area or remove the section where the installation is planned from the park all together.

So far, the project hasn't faced much controversy.

No one attended a June 27 town hall meeting regarding the proposal in Tofino and Hesquiaht Chief, Richard Lucas, told CBC his community supports the plan.

"The good thing is nobody showed up to oppose us going through the park. I guess the bad thing is, it would have been nice to talk to some [of the] public on how they feel about it," he told Khalil Akhtar, guest host of CBC Radio's On the Island.

Burden on elders

Campbell says, in January, the community was left without power for a week due to a mechanical failure.

Other times, bad weather or ocean conditions can prevent the arrival of diesel shipments, which are delivered by barge.

During a multi-day outage, there's no way to keep perishable food cold, which costs residents money.

"When we live here, we can't just day-shop. We have to think long term so we always buy a big quantity of groceries," said Campbell. 

The Hesquiaht First Nation is the most remote of the five central Nuu-chah-nulth Nations on the west coast of Vancouver Island. The closest neighbours live in the boat accessed community of Ahousaht. (Hesquiaht First Nation)

The financial impact of relying on combustible fuel also strips the band of opportunities to invest money elsewhere.

According to Lucas, the cost of diesel in Hot Spring Cove was $565,000 for the 2014-2015 fiscal year.

The cost of the fuel is shared between the band and Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada or INAC.

Lucas said the band's portion of the bill can account for up to two-thirds of its annual budget.

For the hydro project proposal, INAC would share the cost of construction.

A federal report that looked at electricity consumption and production in off-the-grid communities in Canada says reliance on diesel generators creates environmental, social and economic concerns for communities. The report also advocates for communities to move to renewable energy sources.

"This would decrease pollution and could contribute to their economic development and security of energy supply," it said.

As of 2011, Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada (now INAC) and Natural Resources Canada listed 61 remote British Columbian communities using the fuel as their main power source.