By Rob O’Flanagan
GUELPH — First Nations in northern Ontario have significant, but largely untapped economic development opportunities. The energy supply they need to take advantage of those opportunities is often tapped out. Microgrid solar systems could help those communities overcome their power deficiencies.
The Ontario government announced $2.9 million in funding Wednesday to assist Guelph-based Canadian Solar build a testing facility to explore the integration of renewable energy through microgrid systems.
A microgrid is a localized, autonomous electricity generation and storage system that is disconnected from the traditional centralized grid.
Guelph MPP Liz Sandals represented the province for the announcement, held at Canadian Solar's sprawling Speedvale Avenue facility.
The funds will be matched by the company, and the testing centre is expected to be built at the same Speedvale site within a year.
The company has a number of partners in the initiative, including NCC Development, a First Nations infrastructure agency based on the Fort William First Nation in northern Ontario, as well as Guelph Hydro, Hydro One Remote Communities Inc., and the University of Waterloo.
"It's a very exciting project, because the centre is going to focus on how do we create all- in-one renewable energy centres," Sandals said. "What I find really exciting about this particular project is the opportunity to work with the First Nations in northern Ontario, and look at solutions where we can have electricity generation and storage, and local grid distribution as a self-contained entity."
She said the technology can be used in many places throughout Ontario and around the world, but it is particularly relevant in remote, "off-grid" areas of the province.
Canadian Solar senior director Brian Lu said the test centre is the first of its kind in the world. It will primarily be based in solar energy, but will explore the inclusion of other forms of renewable energy as well.
Lu also highlighted the project's potential benefits to northern First Nations, and said it could stimulate thousands of new jobs across Ontario when communities begin to integrate more renewable energy into their existing energy mix. The technology could also benefit the mining sector, industrial users, military bases, and parks.
Guelph Mayor Karen Farbridge said Guelph is proud to be the home of the microgrid test centre.
"It is one more example of how Guelph is becoming the gateway community for integrating energy solutions in North America," she said, adding the microgrid project is another in a series of exciting renewable energy developments in the city.
Earlier in the year, the first step in a planned, citywide district energy network — a system located at the Sleeman Centre — was announced.
"Guelph's leadership in energy distinguishes our city in a highly competitive global market, for attracting jobs, investment, resources and talent," Farbridge said.
NCC Development chief operating officer Brian Walmark said the broadband telecommunications network of the agency provides cellular service to more than 20 communities in the north, and broadband services to eight First Nations in Ontario. But it is powered primarily by "dirty fossil fuel."
Efforts are ongoing to reduce fossil fuel use and replace it with renewable energy, and bringing a microgrid system to the north is seen as vital to that effort.
In an interview, Walmark said the next step in the process of bringing microgrid systems to northern First Nations is to build a demonstration site with a full microgrid system on Keewaywin First Nation, about 600 kilometres north of Thunder Bay. Initially the system will be solar, but new renewable energy components will be added and tested as they come on stream.
There are new homes on a number of First Nations in the north that can't be hooked up to the power grid because Ontario Hydro has load restrictions in the communities.
"There is not enough power in remote communities in the far north to provide for basic services," he said, "which is problematic, because there are lots of economy development opportunities that First Nations are having trouble getting involved with because they don't have enough power to take advantage of the opportunities."
Energy is a critical issue for the far north, Walmark said. Generating alternative energy means heat for homes, improved education, better local infrastructure, and economic development opportunities.