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Indigenous communities make clean energy drive work for, not against, them

20/20 Catalysts, an intensive Indigenous clean energy capacity-building program, at the Nanticoke Solar Project in Six Nations of the Grand River in the summer of 2022.

20/20 Catalysts, an intensive Indigenous clean energy capacity-building program, at the Nanticoke Solar Project in Six Nations of the Grand River in the summer of 2022. Image courtesy of the 20/20 Catalyst Program. Image courtesy of the 20/20 Catalyst Program.

  • Indigenous peoples have been steadily warning about the impacts of renewable energy development on their lands and communities, but some see a way to harness this trend for the positive.
  • Experts say Indigenous communities can play a leading role in the clean energy transition through partnerships that allow them to produce and benefit from renewable energy projects.
  • In Canada, policy initiatives like the feed-in tariff program in Ontario province have encouraged Indigenous participation in renewable energy by providing incentives for Indigenous ownership in projects, making them a growing shareholder in Canada’s clean energy transition.
  • While there are examples to be taken from Canada’s approach, barriers remain, including limited capacity within communities, access to capital, and governance structures supporting such partnerships.

The traditional territory of the Walpole Island First Nation in Canada covers a vast area of present southwestern Ontario and southeastern Michigan. Marshy deltas, tallgrass prairies and oak savannas are found here. Since time immemorial, the Ojibwe, Potawatomi and Odawa peoples have used this area for hunting, fishing and gathering. Now, a new kind of resource covers part of their land: wind turbines.

The dozens of turbines, owned in partnership between other First Nations and energy companies, mean that Walpole Island First Nation now plays an active role in pushing forward the clean energy transition.

While a growing number of renewable energy projects are either Indigenous-led or include Indigenous people as partners, many still come at the expense of Indigenous rights. Poor access to capital and finance, lack of exemplary partnerships, and poor policy guidelines around land rights, consultation processes and cultural considerations often mean that Indigenous communities have been sidelined in renewable energy development projects. Without concerted efforts to change these trends, they’re likely to continue: recent studies have shown that as many as 54% of all transition minerals occur on or near land occupied by Indigenous communities.

“As Indigenous Peoples, we recognize and support the global shift towards renewable energy,” Joan Carling, executive director of Indigenous Peoples Rights International, said at a press conference on the energy transition at this year’s U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII). “But it can’t happen at the expense of Indigenous people. Right now, we are going towards a new type of ‘clean’ colonialism.”

There’s another path that the clean energy transition could take, experts say. Through partnerships with Indigenous communities, some renewable projects, from wind farms to microhydropower projects, are trying to make the energy transition more just, sustainable and equitable. This was at the center of the first Conference on Indigenous Peoples and the Just Transition, held before the UNPFII in April. Almost 90 Indigenous peoples’ representatives from 35 countries in the seven Indigenous sociocultural regions of the world set out their demands for full inclusion of Indigenous peoples in the shift to renewable energy. The statement listed actions for states, utilities and governments to facilitate Indigenous-led clean energy development. It also highlighted many of the successful projects currently underway.

The Nanticoke Solar Project in Six Nations of the Grand River. The Nanticoke Solar Project in Six Nations of the Grand River. Image courtesy of the 20/20 Catalyst Program.

“We have already been developing our own models, and community-led models,” said Adrian Lasimbang, executive director of Right Energy Partnership (REP), which works to increase Indigenous rights and partnerships in renewable energy projects. “It is something that we want to highlight so when climate financing and people decide about projects, they’re not just pushing market-based solutions to our community, but instead we can get direct financing for our initiative and scale it up.”

Future renewable energy development should prioritize Indigenous and community-driven projects, Lasimbang said. His own organization, TONIBUNG, has been developing and installing microhydropower systems in Malaysia for more than two decades, bringing electricity to rural and Indigenous communities and in the process helping them conserve their natural resources.

Among all the countries, Indigenous conference organizers say Canada stands out as an example of how government policy and financial can enhance Indigenous participation in the clean energy transition.

Changing winds in Canada

In 2009, the province of Ontario was attempting to bring new renewable projects onto the grid but struggling with connectivity. It launched what was known as the feed-in tariff program, or FIT, with the goal of attracting and supporting renewable energy developers. Under FIT, contracted operators of renewable energy projects were paid a set price for every kilowatt-hour of electricity that their project fed into the provincial energy grid.

Importantly, Ontario provided an “Aboriginal Price Adder,” or what amounted to an increased contract price, for projects that had a minimum percentage of First Nation ownership. That same year, Ontario launched its Aboriginal loan guarantee program to support Indigenous equity investments in the province’s renewable energy sector.

“The guaranteed rate under the program was quite favorable to sell back energy far above market rate,” James Jenkins, a Walpole Island First Nation member and executive director of Indigenous Clean Energy, a not-for-profit that works on Indigenous-led capacity building in Canada’s clean energy transition.

He credited this policy with helping to attract a large number of Indigenous partners to the program, including the Walpole Island First Nation, who in 2009 started deliberating what a partnership could look like.

That deliberation took shape in 2010, when Northland Power received a contract to generate wind energy from the Grand Bend Wind Farm. After a series of meetings and negotiations, they formed a 50-50 partnership between the Aamjiwnaang First Nation and the Bkejwanong (Walpole Island) First Nation, who are represented by a single-purpose entity called Giiwedin Noodin, which in the Ojibway language means “north wind.”

Wind turbines in Ontario.
In 2009, the province of Ontario was attempting to bring new renewable projects onto the grid but struggling with connectivity. Image by Mike Gifford via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).

Until recently, the more common way Indigenous communities participated in renewable energy projects in Canada was through some form of consultation that often ended in an impact benefit agreement. Here, a developer agrees to financially support small initiatives, often things like ecological remediation or sometimes education. But “being an equity partner is an entirely different experience,” said Jenkins, who participated in the creation of two additional wind farm projects with the Walpole Island First Nation as equity partners.

“We were involved from the beginning and had direct dialogue with their project management team. Our technicians worked with their technicians, and we gained a deep understanding of the project.” he said. Plus, he added, the benefits are often much greater. “Once we calculated the benefits, we could show our leadership that through an equity partnership we are going to see potentially tenfold benefit [over an impact benefit agreement.]”

Indigenous communities across Canada have caught on to this trend. Provinces like British Columbia are now implementing new renewable energy policies similar to Ontario’s FIT program that would see a requirement for Indigenous equity participation, as well as favorable loan and financing conditions for Indigenous projects.

Today, nearly 200 medium-to-large renewable energy projects with Indigenous involvement are now in operation or in the final stages of planning or construction, and around 2,000 micro or small renewable energy systems are now in place under Indigenous leadership or partnership, according to Indigenous Clean Energy. Indigenous communities are partners or beneficiaries in around a fifth of Canada’s electricity-generating infrastructure, most of it renewable.

In other provinces with less regulation, Indigenous communities are also becoming direct owners of renewable energy facilities. For example, in Saskatchewan, the Meadow Lake Tribal Council (MLTC) has constructed a bioenergy plant that runs off forestry refuse that was traditionally burned. The plant can generate 6.6 megawatts of electricity, enough to power around 5,000 homes. It will reduce the environmental impacts of burning forestry residue and also generate a sustainable source of income for the nine First Nations comprising the Meadow Lake Tribal Council.

20/20 Catalysts learning how lumber waste is turned into electricity at the First Nations-owned Meadow Lake Tribal Council Bioenergy Centre. Image courtesy of the Meadow Lake Tribal Council Bioenergy Centre.
20/20 Catalysts learning how lumber waste is turned into electricity at the First Nations-owned Meadow Lake Tribal Council Bioenergy Centre. Image courtesy of the Meadow Lake Tribal Council Bioenergy Centre.
A wind farm in Chatham-Kent, Ontario.
A wind farm in Chatham-Kent, Ontario. Image by Ken Lund via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Limits to growth

Jenkins said he sees Indigenous communities across Canada as being poised to contribute even more to renewable energy development, but noted that there are limitations. What is especially needed is more capacity building within communities, he said. A program to create community energy champions and community energy plans, developed and funded by Natural Resources Canada, has been a crucial component for the success of projects. And Indigenous Clean Energy, Jenkins’ organization, is particularly invested in training youth to be able to work with their communities on such projects.

“For communities that didn’t have the internal capacity and expertise, there were more barriers. Especially with these larger projects we can see that if there isn’t internal capacity, there is a high rate of failure,” he said.

At the same time, without internal understanding of the project, Indigenous communities are often hesitant to engage with outside developers due to a legacy of land theft, displacement, and disregard for Indigenous rights.

“Having energy leaders in communities makes a project much more successful. Not only can they explain the project to their community, they also know the right questions to ask, and can look for their own projects,” Jenkins told Mongabay.

Other barriers include access to capital and governance structures to better support partnerships, he said. Financial institutions don’t have the understanding or aren’t as confident working with Indigenous communities and entities. And while community-level expertise is growing, much of the energy planning happens at the provincial level, where Indigenous representation and expertise is still lacking.

While renewable energy and human rights experts see Canada as leading with regard to Indigenous participation in renewable energy projects, Jenkins said he’s wary of what the increase in clean energy development might mean for First Nations if it isn’t matched by a drive for partnerships, resources for First Nations, and respect for rights.

“With plans for every region of Canada to rapidly increase the development of new clean energy, there’s the possibility that that level of [First Nations] participation will rapidly decrease,” he said. “I think there needs to be concerted efforts to ensure that we see the same levels of Indigenous participation in projects.”

 

Banner image: A wind farm in Chatham-Kent, Ontario. Image by Ken Lund via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

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