First Nations powered by solar

EDMONTON, ALBERTA - Three years ago, says Chief Gordon Planes, his people were worried for their future.

The people of the T’Sou-ke Nation have lived on Vancouver Island for centuries, Planes told an Edmonton-area audience recently, fishing from the sea and carving boats from trees. But environmental pressures have put those traditions at risk. “Are salmon still going to be coming up our rivers? Are there still going to be clams on our beaches?”

The community got together and made a plan that has made them the most solar-intensive community in Canada.

Now, Planes says he hopes other communities can learn from their example. “We have to prepare for the future,” he says. “I want to see our children have a good place to live.”

Planes spoke on the T’Sou-ke “Sook” Nation’s solar project before about 100 people at Grant MacEwan University. The talk was part of a series of lectures organized by the Solar Energy Society of Alberta.

T’Sou-ke is a community of about 300 people spread across two villages, says Planes, chief of the T’Sou-ke Nation. “The people said we should be taking care of the environment and looking at alternate forms of energy,” he says, so they brought in project manager Andrew Moore to hold a consultation.

That led to a yearlong public process, says Moore, one that involved everyone from little kids to elders. Residents set a goal of creating a “sustainable, resilient community” that would last seven generations and created a comprehensive plan that covered food production, development, culture and energy.

Recognizing the risks of rising oil prices, the community decided to aim for energy self-sufficiency. With the help of a government grant, they brought in 75 kilowatts worth of solar electric panels, most of which are in a single warehouse-sized array, installed 37 solar hot-water heaters and did efficiency retrofits on all their homes. These measures have reduced the community’s energy use by about 30 per cent, Moore said — they’re aiming for 50 per cent in three years.

The project cost about $1.25 million, Moore said, about $100,000 of which came from the community. ItÂ’s also helped nine residents become professional soon to be certified solar installers and got them a partnership role in a $12-million solar project in a nearby community.

The community now draws busloads of tourists, Moore said, and produces so much power that its electricity meters usually run backward. “We’ll be selling surplus electricity for the next 50 years to BC Hydro.”

Solar electricity is still very expensive, Moore said — it costs 30 cents a kilowatt and BC Hydro currently pays them 10 cents a kilowatt. Still, they expect they’ll start making money in five years due to rising electricity prices.

Anyone who wants to go solar should start with conservation first, Moore said — they didn’t and now wish they had. T’Sou-ke spent about five times more money on solar electricity than it did on conservation measures, yet got the same amount of energy savings from both.

“It’s a tenth of the price to conserve energy than it is to produce it,” he says. “If you’re going to do photovoltaics, only do it when you’ve done the rest of it.”

Strong community commitment was vital to the project’s success, Moore continued. “We made sure everyone saw themselves in it and was involved.”

Students, elders, and administrators were all heavily involved in promoting renewable energy.

Our ancestors didn’t need fossil fuels to live in the past, Planes says. “Our people used the wind for our sails… we worked with the tides.”

Renewable power has helped the T’Sou-ke improve their health and get back to nature. “It’s like medicine.”


in Year