Solar power an uphill battle in Fort Chipewyan

California billionaire and climate change activist Tom Steyer was in Fort Chipewyan this week, where local leaders are hoping he’ll pitch in to help bring solar power to the community downstream from the oilsands.
The sun rises over Fort Chipewyan, Alberta. Community members there say it's been an uphill battle to get funding to solar power in the community downstream from the oilsands. They're hoping a visit from California billionaire Tom Steyer will turn things around. (CBC)

People in Fort Chipewyan, Alta., will soon install solar panels on the community’s elders centre, but they say getting funding for alternative energy in Northern Alberta has been an uphill battle.

“No one was going to jump on it right away for it to happen,” says Athabasca Chipewyan member Mike Mercredi.

That could change, thanks to a visit this week from California billionaire and climate change activist Tom Steyer.

Neil Young challenged Steyer to help out in the community during his Honour the Treaties tour.

Now leaders are hoping he will give money to help fund more solar panels in the community.

While the Alberta government helps with start up money for oil and gas industries, they don't provide money for alternative energy, says Jesse Cardinal, a co-ordinator with Keepers of the Athabasca. 

"If you are a person looking to start a business in the solar industry or even get your home switched over to solar, the programs are almost non-existent for that," Cardinal said from her home in Kikino, Alta. "Whereas if you're looking to start a business in the oil industry, they pretty much hold your hand through the whole process and funding is readily available."

Cardinal says it's also been a challenge to persuade people about the merits of solar power.

"People don't know enough about it and they don't know if it really works and how it works, so the idea is to have it in the community so people can see it first hand and with their own eyes." 

The solar project has been in the works since 2008, and is now set to start at the end of May. 

Randall Benson, a Métis from Fort McMurray, will do the installations. 

The journeyman electrician has been working with solar power for 15 years across Canada and in California and Oregon.

Benson says solar power in First Nations communities is still a relatively new phenomenon. 

"The most exciting thing is training local individuals to do the work," Benson says. 

Four or five people will be trained to install 44 solar panels on the elders centre, at a cost of about $30,000.

Alternative energy wasn't the only thing on the wish list when billionaire Steyer made his visit to Fort Chip. 

Community leaders say he may also be interested in supporting their legal defence fund or an on-the-land experiential learning initiative.