Indigenous-owned solar farm opens in remote northern Alberta community

An Indigenous-owned solar farm in remote northeast Alberta, branded the largest project of its kind in Canada, celebrated its grand opening this week with the promise of increased renewable energy independence for a community long reliant on diesel.

Fort Chipewyan's remote solar farm largest of its kind in Canada, federal government says

The Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, led by Chief Allan Adam, is one of the Indigenous owners of a massive new solar farm project in northeast Alberta. (Nick Kendrick/Greenplanet Energy Analytics)

An Indigenous-owned solar farm in remote northeast Alberta, branded the largest project of its kind in Canada, celebrated its grand opening this week, bringing increased renewable energy independence to a community long reliant on diesel fuel. 

The project is owned by Three Nations Energy, a joint venture of the Mikisew Cree First Nation, Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation and the Fort Chipewyan Métis Association, all located in the hamlet of Fort Chipewyan. 

The 5,760 solar panels will supply the remote northeast Alberta community with around 25 per cent of its energy needs, the company says.

Before the solar farm, Fort Chipewyan's roughly 1,000 residents got their energy from the ATCO-owned diesel power station, which every year burns three million litres of fuel trucked in on ice roads or delivered by river barge. 

The solar farm is expected to replace 800,000 litres of diesel a year, equivalent to about 2,376 tonnes of carbon emissions.

"We worked together and we made it happen," Chief Allan Adam of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation said Tuesday at an event celebrating the completion of the project's second and final phase.

"We work with the sun, we work with the wind, we work with mother nature and we work the water for the children of the future — to give them a better life, a cleaner life." 

Blue Eyes Simpson of the Fort Chipewyan Metis Association addresses the crowd at Tuesday's grand opening, against the backdrop of community's 6,000-panel solar farm. (Nick Kendrick, Greenplanet Energy Analytics)

ATCO, the Alberta-based utility company, partnered with the Indigenous owners throughout the project, including on design and engineering. The utility owns 1,500 panels built during the first phase in June 2019.

"This is a very proud moment for all of us as a community. We've worked together very hard for these past couple of years," said Blue Eyes Simpson, vice-president of the Fort Chipewyan Métis Association. 

'We're switching over to renewable energy' 

With the completion of the 2.2 MW-capacity project, about 25 fewer tanker trucks will trek across the winter ice road connecting the community with Fort McMurray, 220 kilometres to the south, the company says. In the summer, the community is only accessible by air or barge. 

Local leaders say the ice road is becoming increasingly unreliable due to climate change, as research shows Canada's north is warming nearly three times faster than the global average

"This energy project brings a lot of happiness to our community because it's less fuel to transport down the road," Mikisew Cree First Nation Chief Peter Powder said Tuesday. 

The renewable energy project is the largest remote, off-grid solar farm in the country, according to the federal government. Three Nations Energy says the profits will be reinvested in other green energy projects and education. 

"We've always relied on fossil fuels, but we're switching over to renewable energy," said Powder.

An aerial view of the Fort Chipewyan solar farm, located beside the community airport. (Green Energy Futures/YouTube)

The $7.76-million project was funded by the provincial and federal government. The federal government supplied $4.5 million and the Alberta government added the other $3.3 million. 

Federal Natural Resources Minister Seamus O'Regan called the solar farm a model for Canada's energy future.

"We welcome your determination in building the energy capacity to reduce the community's reliance on diesel, to reduce pollution and to address a climate crisis that has taken a particularly heavy toll on your region," O'Regan said in pre-recorded remarks, aired during a virtual panel discussion Wednesday. 

ATCO will buy the solar farm's energy under a long-term purchase agreement and supply it to the local power grid, which is disconnected from the provincewide grid. 

"Indigenous people must have an equity stake in resource projects if there's going to be a healthy future for our vital resources industry," Rick Wilson, Alberta's minister of Indigenous relations, said in a pre-recorded video. 

"Projects like this will benefit generations to come." 

Three Nations Energy doesn't plan to stop with the solar farm. The company is looking to add a wood fuel heating business and sustainable hydroponics food production in the community, with the help of the solar farm's project managers Greenplanet Energy Analytics.