First Nation in heart of oil country switching to solar power

Cold Lake First Nation is doing well economically thanks to its oil-based economy, but its leaders believe exploring greener alternatives will gain importance in years to come.

Cold Lake First Nation announces $250K project to install solar panels on buildings this fall

Indigenous Relations Minister Richard Feehan and Cold Lake First Nation Chief Bernice Marshall talk with reporters during news conference on Monday. (Province of Alberta)

Sitting on the second-largest deposit of oilsands in Canada, the economy of the Cold Lake First Nation relies heavily on the natural resource industry.

But in a project announced Monday, the First Nation said it will be making a significant investment in a greener source of power.

The First Nation, about 225 kilometres northeast of Edmonton, rakes in millions of dollars of profits annually through its main company, Primco Dene, which provides camp catering, janitorial, EMS and security services in northeast Alberta.

The wealthy community of almost 2,500 receives less than 30 per cent of its community funding from Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada.

Ironically, amid the financial prosperity, CLFN is still dealing with the effects of a devastating Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. oil spill on their territory in 2013 that resulted in the deaths of birds and animals.

However, it's the threat of climate change that has spurred leadership to start to change their focus from solely oil- generated revenue to exploring greener alternatives.

Chief Bernice Marshall says elders advised council to make the shift after noticing changes happening in the land and water systems.

"[After the spill] our elders were talking to us, they want us to slow down on what we're doing and try to find other ways of creating sources of revenue," Marshall said. 

"Climate change threatens our lands, water, fish, plants and ultimately our entire livelihood, and we must all come together to solve the problem."

Solar panels coming

Cold Lake First Nation announced Monday it will install solar panels on five of its buildings this fall with help from a grant through the Alberta government's Indigenous solar program. The government is providing $200,000 while the First Nation is contributing $50,000.

"Cold Lake First Nation is proud to begin a journey towards a lower-carbon economy in partnership with the province. All levels of government have a duty to protect the lands under the treaty," Marshall said.

The solar project is projected to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by more than 1,305 tonnes, and help the community save nearly $150,000 on utility bills over a span of 25 years.

"Another big reason to go solar is to cut costs on power," Marshall said. "We want to look at the difference between this year and next year in the price of electricity." 

"The Alberta Indigenous solar program is making life better and more affordable for Indigenous people and communities," said Alberta Indigenous Relations Minister Richard Feehan.

"Our government is proud to support this project and the First Nation's rich history of environmental leadership."

Feehan said the project goes hand in hand with Alberta's promise to implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

"A fundamental principle of UNDRIP is that First Nations should be at every table. Whether it's solar programs [or others that affect them]. This is our commitment in this area where we have deep shared values and that's the preservation of the earth, the air and water," said Feehan.

Emerging green economy

The project is a part of a $35-million commitment announced by the province last spring designed to help Indigenous communities transition to the emerging green economy.

Feehan says the vast majority of First Nations in Alberta have applied for grants through the initiative.

Marshall is striving to help CLFN take the lead in solar and not be left out on the opportunities of the booming green technology sector.

"I'm always looking towards tomorrow for my community. I don't want us to be left out in the cold anymore saying we should've took this program or that program. So we decided to do it," she said.

Eventually the band plans to outfit community member homes with solar panels, but Marshall said Cold Lake First Nation will incorporate the solar shift one step at a time. 


Brandi Morin, Métis, born and raised in Alberta, possesses a passion for telling Indigenous stories. Based outside Edmonton, Morin has lent her talents to several news organizations, including Indian Country Today Media Network and the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network National News.