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Indigenous groups lead the renewable transition in northern Canada

Dozens of tightly packed buildings of various shapes and sizes and colors in front of a low mountain range.
View of Iqaluit, Nunavut. (Getty Images)

A solution to climate change is emerging in one of the regions most affected by it. In Nunavut — the northernmost territory of Canada — a coalition of Indigenous communities is transitioning the region away from diesel and toward renewable energy.

In 2018, Nukik Corporation, which was formed by individuals in the Indigenous Inuit population, started planning the Kivalliq Hydro-Fibre Link, a set of electricity and fiber-optic transmission cables. The link would connect the vast regions of rural northern Canada to a southern Canadian renewable energy grid in the province of Manitoba. Once completed, the project would be one of the largest renewable energy transmission lines geographically — running 745 miles in length — and the first infrastructure project of this kind that’s organized by an Indigenous corporation.

The project promises to wean Nunavut, including two gold mining sites, off heavily polluting diesel generators and to tap into the potential energy generation of northern Canada and the Arctic. In addition to renewable energy, the link will include a fiber-optic cable that will make internet speeds 3,000 times faster than the satellite network the region uses currently. One report states that Nunavut is the only jurisdiction in Canada that doesn’t have access to internet speeds above 25 megabits per second.

About 200,000 Canadians are not connected to the electricity grid across the country, and roughly 70% of those households rely on diesel. Some communities produce their own, while others, like Nunavut, receive shipments from the government.

The plan is to install a 1,200-kilometer high-voltage transmission line that will transmit 150 megawatts of energy, enough to power roughly 20,000 homes. The 2022 census showed that there are 40,526 people living in Nunavut, the majority of whom live in houses with two or more people, meaning the line would likely power most of the population’s households.

The transmission line will run all the way up to the Nunavut region, providing energy and fiber-optic connection to the towns of Arviat, Whale Cove, Rankin Inlet, Chesterfield Inlet and Baker Lake from the Manitoba plant, a government-owned facility that gets more than 98% of its electricity from hydroelectricity and wind power. The plant has 16 hydroelectric generating stations, four diesel generators and a thermal generating station.

“To have one Indigenous group have their homeland be so massive ... it’s not something we have in the U.S.,” Chéri Smith, founder and CEO of Indigenous Energy Initiative, a U.S.-based Indigenous-led nonprofit, told Yahoo News. Smith is a member of the Mi’kmaq Tribe of present-day northern Maine and the Canadian Maritime Provinces. “[The U.S.] has projects that are transmitting a lot of power, but not that covers this amount of territory.”

However, the project hasn’t broken ground yet, and a lot of information on logistics and funding remains elusive. Nukik Corporation has completed many of the environmental assessments and attained necessary licenses and permits, but construction has not yet begun. According to the group’s website, it is currently working on engineering and procurement and plans to start construction in 2026 and finish by 2030.

Dozens of houses perched on cliffs.
Houses perched on cliffs in the city of Iqaluit. (Cavan Images/Getty Images)

“The project is in the early stages, and much more work remains to be done to bring the project to a shovel-ready stage and ultimately to completion,” said a spokesperson for Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada, the department of Canada’s central government responsible for the northern lands and territories.

The project would achieve something that experts have been advocating for years: to combine internet and energy access. “Close coordination between the energy and [information and communications technology] sectors is probably one of the most efficient and sensible ways of making sure rural populations ... can reap the benefits of digital developments,” a 2017 World Bank Blogs post argued.

Rural communities are often overlooked for internet connection because traditional operators deem them to be too remote and poor to be profitable. But when there is already a plan to invest in a renewable energy link, adding a fiber-optic cable to the infrastructure is simple. ”It’s a no-brainer,” Smith said.

Last November, Canadian Minister of Northern Affairs Dan Vandal announced that the government would give CAN$7 million (US$5 million) in funding to the Kivalliq project. The government set aside CAN$40.4 million for hydroelectricity and grid interconnection projects across 2021, 2022 and 2023 through the Northern Responsibility Energy Approach for Community Heat and Electricity program. The project would help Canada attain its goal of reaching net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

However, this funding is not likely to cover the project. According to Smith, it costs US$1 million per mile to build a line like this. Fiber-optic cables alone tend to cost between US$60,000 and $80,000 per mile.

A person walks along a path on a hill overlooking a landscape of water, some buildings and distant mountains.
A person walks along a path in Iqaluit in July 2022. (Carlos Osorio/Reuters)

Nukik Corporation has not responded to questions on how much the project will cost in total or how it will be funded in the long run.

The government spokesperson said the CAN$7 million is to support early feasibility and planning work. “Should additional funding support be requested, the Government of Canada will review and assess proposals as they are received,” the spokesperson said.

Smith is concerned that the costs will trickle down to consumers in the form of higher electricity bills. “It’s not clear who is making the money here,” she said. “My fear is that this poor tribe is being exploited.”

The company at the heart of this question is the Qulliq Energy Corporation (QEC), the sole utility operator responsible for providing electricity and district heating to consumers in Nunavut. It did not respond to requests for comment.

Another possibility is that the government will subsidize the electricity. Canada’s Northern Affairs office is already responsible for shipping and subsidizing all of Nunavut’s diesel. When asked if these subsidies would transfer, however, it referred back to QEC.

These details put the feasibility and impact of the project into question. But even if it were completed, other sources of fossil fuel consumption would have to be changed in the region for it to become fully reliant on renewable energy.

“It’s a chicken-and-egg situation,” said Sara Hastings-Simon, an assistant professor and director of the Masters of Science in Sustainable Energy Development program at the University of Calgary. Fully electrifying the region requires many different groups to start making concurrent efforts. For example, most homes use oil furnaces for heating and gas stoves for cooking. “It’s kind of like walking and chewing gum at the same time,” said Hastings-Simon. “There are a lot of pieces, and it can be very hard to line up all those pieces.”

A red and black snowmobile in front of a blue building with signs reading: Iqaluit Housing Authority, 1105.
A snowmobile on a road in Iqaluit. (Carlos Osorio/Reuters)

The Nunavut Housing Corporation, a government agency that administers affordable housing projects, runs the Heating Oil Tank Replacement Program, which provides grants for people to replace old oil tanks with new ones. The program could be used to connect houses to the new line, but there are no official plans to replace gas stoves and oil furnaces throughout Nunavut.

The mining industry, however, says it’s willing to shift if renewable energy is available.

The two sites that Nukik is proposing to take off of diesel are owned by a company called Agnico Eagle. The company says it has been trialing electric battery vehicles at other mining locations throughout the world, but due to the current lack of renewable energy alternatives in Nunavut, it relies on diesel for energy for now.

“If the project moves forward, this would allow for significant GHG emissions reductions at these sites through green energy sourcing and further electrification of our operations,” Casey Paradis St-Onge, Agnico Eagle’s Nunavut communication coordinator, told Yahoo News in an email.

Though this could arguably encourage continued harmful mining activity, there are certain minerals and materials needed for the transition away from carbon. “The renewable energy industry needs metals and minerals as well,” Hastings-Simon said.

The Nukik website claims that “connecting the Arctic to the grid will unlock future renewable energy generation in the North that in turn can be shared with southern Canada and contribute to reaching our 2030, 2050 climate and electrification targets.” But the link itself wouldn’t be enough to make Nunavut an energy supplier.

Someone sits on a red bench next to a white post with signs radiating out from it showing the distances to various cities and appears to look out over blue water and mountains beyond.
Signs show the distances to various cities and also to the North Pole in the town of Pond Inlet, an Inuit settlement with 1,300 inhabitants in the Canadian Arctic. (Kay Nietfeld/picture alliance via Getty Images)

Mads Qvist Frederiksen, the executive director of the Arctic Economic Council, says there are three primary challenges to building renewable energy plants in the Arctic: People are scared to invest, extensive infrastructure is needed for transporting the green energy (which the Kivalliq link would solve) and the workforce is lacking.

He believes hydropower and wind have the most potential in Arctic regions. With investment and landright permits, he thinks it would be relatively easy to build renewable energy plants. “Renewable energy is growing fast in the Arctic region,” he said. But supplying that energy would require separate investment. There are some reports that Qulliq Energy Corporation is building a diesel-solar hybrid facility, but plans were delayed to late 2023.

If, in the long run, the Nunavut region were able to provide electricity to the rest of Canada, Smith said, this would be a significant achievement for the Indigenous community worldwide. “It would be very significant for any Indigenous community to be supplying energy at that level to the grid,” she said.

For now, the link is still in the early phases and vital questions about funding need to be answered, but it’s a first glimpse at the multifaceted effort that a renewable energy transition requires. If completed, it would signify a whole system shift in northern Canada that could be unprecedented for the Indigenous community and a landmark contribution toward Canada’s net-zero goals.