There are currently 25 First Nations communities in northwestern Ontario that rely on diesel generators for electricity. However, continued use of diesel is financially unsustainable, environmentally detrimental, and unable to meet community needs.

Diesel comes at a high cost

Using diesel generation to power remote communities costs 3 to 10 times the provincial average. It takes over $1 million to pay for the 900,000 litres of fuel required to power a community of 400 for one year. That doesn’t include the millions of dollars it costs to operate and maintain the diesel generators.

In addition, transporting the fuel is environmentally hazardous. The diesel must be delivered to the communities by plane or truck, with approximately 70 percent delivered by air and 30 percent by road.

“These communities are only accessible by air or winter roads for the most part, meaning it takes additional fuel and expense to transport the diesel,” says Tabatha Bull, IESO’s Senior Manager of First Nation and Métis Relations. “Transporting diesel also increases the risk of fuel spills.”

Diesel is also unable to meet the communities’ needs. Power outages are a regular occurrence, leaving homes, businesses and schools without electricity, sometimes for days at a time. Furthermore, when the generators are at capacity, new houses and businesses can’t be connected. In some communities, the capacity constriction can last for years, severely restricting growth.

“There are a number of communities where new houses have been built, but because there wasn’t enough capacity to connect to the system, the family couldn’t move in,” says Bull. “This leads to multiple families living in one home, while the unoccupied homes fall into disrepair.”

The case for connecting

Working in tandem with representatives from the Indigenous communities and four local tribal councils, the IESO has been moving toward a solution since 2012. The resulting Remote Community Connection Plan was formalized by the Ontario government in July 2016. The IESO’s role in creating the plan was to conduct the technical and economic evaluation of electricity supply options for these remote communities, while representatives from the First Nations communities and tribal councils provided oversight and guidance for the analysis.

“Indigenous communities add a valuable perspective to the IESO’s electricity planning in many regions throughout the province,” says Michael Lyle, Vice President of Planning, Legal, Indigenous Relations and Regulatory Affairs at IESO. “The Remote Community Connection Plan was a crucial step in enabling the connection of remote First Nations communities, and it will provide a stable, sustainable, cost-effective electricity supply.”

The Remote Community Connection Plan will improve quality of life and reduce harmful emissions in 21 remote First Nation communities — all of which currently rely on diesel power — by connecting them to Ontario’s power grid. This would result in savings of about $1 billion. The IESO is continuing to work with the five communities that are economic to connect but are not currently part of the Watay project. For the remaining communities, the IESO is exploring the potential to use renewable energy resources to reduce their diesel consumption.

Wataynikaneyap Power LP (Watay), an unprecedented partnership between a consortium of 22 First Nation communities, FortisOntario, and RES Canada, has been tasked with building the necessary transmission infrastructure for 16 of the 21 communities, plus an additional seasonal community. The ultimate goal is to give the communities the capability to build their own infrastructure. According to Watay, the project will create roughly 261 jobs in Northwestern Ontario and almost 769 across Canada during the construction period, while also supporting long-term economic growth.

“Indigenous communities are increasingly playing an active role in Ontario’s energy sector in the areas of conservation, generation, and major new transmission projects,” says Lyle. “Going forward, we will continue to seek opportunities to engage and encourage the participation of Indigenous communities that align with their unique community needs and contribute to knowledge building in their communities.”

Watay Power plans to begin construction in 2018. The goal is to finish Phase 1 in 2020 and to connect the 17 First Nations communities by 2023. Once complete, the project will provide a sustainable, clean supply of electricity for over 10,000 people.