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Kugaaruk takes small step toward sustainable energy with new solar panels

A small solar installation, which will power the community freezer in summer, is a first step for the Nunavut hamlet toward a future without diesel. It hasn't been easy.

Solar installation, delayed by regulatory requirements, will power community freezer in summertime

Hamlet officials pose for a photo in front of the community freezer. From left to right, clean energy manager Alex Ittimangnaq, Deputy Mayor Katherina Qirngnuq, Elder and Coun. Christian Nalungiaq, Mayor Teddy Apsaktaun and Frank Immingark, a member of the hamlet's clean energy committee. (John Last/CBC)

After years of hard work and waiting, the hamlet of Kugaaruk, Nunavut, has taken a tentative first step toward sustainable energy with regulatory approval of a solar array to power the community freezer.

The 10-kilowatt system, funded by Natural Resources Canada, sits atop the community arena and will eventually provide power to the adjacent freezer through the summer months when it is most expensive to cool.

"We use a lot of power in town, and this is a good thing to start with," said Teddy Apsaktaun, mayor of Kugaaruk.

The installation is the result of years of planning and the coordination of multiple government and non-profit initiatives, spearheaded locally by Alex Ittimangnaq, the clean energy manager with the hamlet.

Ittimangnaq is a graduate of the Indigenous Clean Energy 20/20 Catalysts program, which identifies and mentors Indigenous leaders who will help advocate for and execute plans to transition communities off of diesel. His position with the hamlet is partly funded through the Indigenous Off-Diesel Initiative, a federal program with a similar aim.

"He's a phenomenal leader," said Eryn Stewart, program director with the Indigenous Clean Energy initiative. "Just seeing all that he's accomplished ... and what an incredible milestone this is for not only his community but the territory ... is something to be so proud of."

A worker installs the panels on top of the community arena. The 10-kilowatt array is the hamlet's first solar installation. (Submitted by Alex Ittimangnaq)

Speaking to CBC, Ittimangnaq said the project was partly "to educate the community about renewable energy."

Aside from the new 10-kilowatt array, the community is "100 per cent reliant on diesel," he said. But transitioning away hasn't been easy.

Until recently, Qulliq Energy Corporation (QEC), which provides the hamlet's power, did not have a net metering policy allowing people to produce their own energy and feed it back into the grid.

Dave Lovekin is the director of the Pembina Institute's Renewables in Remote Communities program, which is working with QEC to develop "more favourable" green energy policies. He says the company still limits solar projects to just 10 kilowatts, which is just twice the size of a typical home system.

"It's one of the lowest capacities in jurisdictions across Canada," Lovekin said. "With the 10-kilowatt limit, there hasn't been much uptake."

QEC also allows just one project per account, Lovekin said, meaning most hamlets are limited to a single system across multiple municipal buildings. 

Mayor Teddy Apsaktaun demonstrates the emergency shutoff switch requested by QEC. The panels are not yet active as the company has requested a new meter be installed. (John Last/CBC)

Jamie Flaherty, QEC's acting president and CEO, said in a statement the company has worked "closely and collaboratively with the hamlet to successfully reach the final stages of connecting this project to the community's power infrastructure."

But in Kugaaruk, the panels' activation has been delayed twice already: first, when QEC requested that the hamlet install an emergency shutoff switch, and again this week, when they asked that a new meter be installed.

With summer's long days already behind them and the array still inactive, neither Ittimangnaq nor Lovekin wanted to criticize the corporation for the delay.

"My take … is QEC has more experience to gain in integrating renewables," said Lovekin, "so they're just starting off slowly."

"It's all just building blocks for communities," he said, "to get … into bigger and more robust projects that will take a bite out of diesel."

Stewart, with the Indigenous Clean Energy initiative, echoed that sentiment, noting Ittimangnaq has two more years of funding to realize more projects in the community.

"It's been an interesting endeavour to say the least," she said, "but definitely worthwhile to see projects like Alex's come to fruition."

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