The rain comes down in a dense mist as John Ebell shows off the construction site of the Nicknaqueet River Hydro project, high on a hillside above the Wannock River in Rivers Inlet, a fjord on the central coast of B.C.
It’s the perfect weather, he says, to illustrate why a small-scale hydroelectric project is so perfect for the area.
“There’s a lot of rainfall here, and there’s a lot of mountains,” Ebell, project manager with the Barkley Project Group, told DeSmog Canada. “So we have drop, and we have rainfall. That’s a perfect combination for hydropower.”
The river below is home to all five Pacific species of salmon, including some of the biggest chinook* in the world. So traditional hydropower — with a dam, a reservoir and inherent risks to spawning grounds — was not acceptable to the community.
They decided on run-of-river, a less intrusive method that involves diverting some of the river’s flow to power a turbine, then returning it to the source.
“This project will displace 97 per cent of the community’s energy needs on an annual basis,” Ebell said.
“The Wuikinuxv Nation is setting a great example demonstrating renewable energy. They're showing that it's clean and it's feasible and it's possible to displace diesel with renewable energy.”
At the moment, those needs are met by diesel fuel, imported by barge and stored in two huge diesel tanks, rusting at the mouth of the Wannock River. For decades, they have served as a reminder of the community’s dependence on diesel.
A 2011 Natural Resources Canada report showed about 90 per cent of the electricity generated in remote communities in B.C. comes from diesel, at an annual cost of more than $3 million per year. In Nunavut, that cost skyrockets to more than $40 million.
The 2017 federal budget set aside $715 million over 11 years to help communities get off diesel, either by generating their own renewable power or by hooking up to the grid. The latter wasn't an option for the Wuikinuxv, however, which learned in late 2013 that BC Hydro would not be providing their isolated community with electricity — despite plans to do so. That's when the nation's attention turned to the idea of locally generated, renewable electricity as a way of surviving off the grid.
Total costs for the Rivers Inlet hydro project came to $9.8 million. The province of B.C. provided nearly $600,000 to the community through the First Nations Clean Energy Business Fund and now-defunct Community Energy Leadership Fund, while the remainder was supplied through federal funds.
Diesel Cost Community $1 Million Each Year
“It’s literally a million dollars a year that went to the generator,” Wuikinuxv Elder George Johnson said.
In a community of under 80 people, that is a significant annual investment that diverted money from other projects.
“It’s hard to live out here because we’re so isolated,” George’s stepson, Gordon Moody, who is working as the project’s site safety supervisor, said.
“Everything costs a lot. So cutting costs is a big deal for us.”
Johnson and other Wuikinuxv community leaders have been pushing for the project since the 1960s.
Now, sitting in his carving studio, he smiles widely.
“It’s finally here,” he says.
Project Costs Included Minimizing Impacts on Bears, Salmon
According to the Barkley Group, the project will require an estimated $160,000 in annual maintenance and operation costs. The annual cost includes wages for three part-time employees.
Some of the construction costs, however, were voluntary additions to help reduce the project’s short- and long-term footprint.
For example, drawing on expertise from Raincoast grizzly researcher Megan Adams, the project’s access road was built with a purposely sinuous design, giving bears more time to hear an approaching vehicle.
Slash is stacked perpendicular to the road, giving bears extra escape routes. And in order to keep the area bear-friendly after the project is complete, berry bushes will be encouraged along the transmission line, and remote sensing instruments will keep visits to the site to a minimum.
Ebell looks around the construction site uneasily, apologizing for the state of it. But by construction site standards, it is remarkably tidy and minimal; the narrow road opens up to a slightly wider area that has been cleared to allow room for machines and workers.
The trees on either side stand untouched, and Ebell says once construction is completed this winter, the area will be replanted. All of the cleared area has a purpose, with seemingly little wasted space.
Salmon are also being protected. The entire project takes place above the highest point salmon reach in the stream, meaning their spawning grounds will have as much water when it comes online as they do currently.
Locally Produced Power a Sign of Things to Come
The Nature Conservancy of Canada donated six hectares of former industrial land, which had been set aside for protection, to the project, saying it was “confident the project team has taken all necessary steps to minimize impact on the conservation values of the project lands.”
In an e-mailed statement, a spokesperson for the conservancy explained the organization’s reasoning behind the donation.
“The Wuikinuxv community will benefit considerably from having a reliable, sustainable, locally produced power source, and the environmental gains to be made by transitioning the community off of diesel power is an overall conservation win.”
The project is a sign of things to come up the coast. Other communities — Hesquiaht First Nation in Hot Springs Cove and Dzawada̱ʼenux̱w First Nation in Kingcome Inlet — have projects in the feasibility assessment stages, meaning the coming years should see even more communities coming off diesel power.
“The Wuikinuxv First Nation is setting a great example demonstrating renewable energy,” Ebell says. “They’re showing that it’s clean, that it’s feasible, and that it’s possible to displace diesel with renewable energy.”
* Update: November 7, 2017 4:00pm pst. This article has been updated to reflect the fact that the Wannock River is home to the world's biggest chinook salmon, not sockeye as previous stated.
Image: Wuikinuxv Elder George Johnson in his carving studio. Photo: Jimmy Thomson