Diesel to Renewables. How do we get there?

Last week’s announcement from Prime Minister Trudeau and President Obama was an extremely positive and promising one. For the first time, we are seeing a broad-based federal commitment to act on the diesel dependency of the almost 300 northern and remote communities. These are exciting times made more promising by the efforts from Provincial and Territorial governments, the Canadian Energy Strategy, and the results of the recent First Ministers Meeting held along with the ground-breaking GLOBE Conference and Exposition in Vancouver.

First Ministers’ Meeting _ Photo by Province of BC_ CC by Att, Non-Comm, No derivatives

A key outcome of the First Ministers Meeting was an agreement to work towards eliminating diesel dependence in remote communities. Photo by the Province of British Columbia licensed under CC-BY-NC-ND.

Getting remote communities, many of which are Indigenous, off of diesel and on to renewables is not just important for those communities but for all of Canada. But how do we get there?

It comes down to scalability. We need to get to a point where we aren’t treating every project as an entirely unique situation. Taking this transition one project at a time is simply too slow for communities who are seeing their energy cost rise every year, and which continue to face precarious energy security realities. We need to get to a point where we can easily replicate the technology and financing strategies to multiple projects at a time. This isn’t to say this process needs to overlook community engagement. Quite the opposite. Communities, notably First Nation, Metis and Inuit peoples need to be actively engaged in the process – gaining skills, knowledge, and a solid understanding of how to leverage these projects as long term sustainable economic development opportunities.

Getting the diesel to renewable transition to be scalable requires: government action, financial innovation, and community capacity.

Government Action

The outcomes of the Washington meeting and the collaboration shown at the First Ministers Meeting are positive first steps from Canada’s government. One of the most important things governments can do to support energy security in the North is to have integrated policies and programs. This means working together to ensure efforts support each other and are easy to access by communities.

Long term policy, program, and financial commitments reflecting 10 or more years of sustained effort is a necessary criterion for success. Taking this approach allows projects to mature and partnerships forged to promote off-grid renewable energy at scale.  A variable, year-to-year funding or policy environment has limitations as we seek to build a base for renewable energy in remote and northern communities.

It’s also pivotal that governments effectively share the lessons learned through these projects among: industry, Indigenous communities, provinces/territories, and on the international stage with other countries. Cooperation and collaboration will catalyze and spread scalable solutions faster.

Financial Innovation

Current financing systems need re-structuring to support the uptake of renewable energies in northern and remote communities. Sufficient early stage resources to comprehensively assess the feasibility of renewable-energy-for-diesel projects are required. To move projects forward, the true value of renewable-energy-for-diesel projects must be factored into decision-making.

Due to the effects of climate change, ice roads like this one are becoming increasingly unreliable. As a result, remote communities need to fly in more of their diesel which can cost up to twice as much. Photo by Hideyuki Kamon under license CC-BY-SA

Due to the effects of climate change, ice roads like this one are becoming increasingly unreliable. As a result, remote communities need to fly in more of their diesel which can cost up to twice as much. Photo by Hideyuki Kamon under license CC-BY-SA

Simply offering Northern, Remote, and Indigenous communities only the “avoided cost” of the diesel fuel itself, short-changes renewable options.  Moreover, project pricing and financing must factor into the capital/operating/overhead costs of diesel generation systems, and recognize the detrimental environmental, economic, and social impacts of diesel transport, storage, spills, and pollution, including greenhouse gas emissions. It’s critical and timely to offer the fair and full value of getting off diesel to remote First Nations and Inuit communities, and the North.

The benefits of moving remote communities to clean energy extend well beyond the estimated 215 million litres of diesel burned each year (which produces the equivalent 600 ktons of CO2 emissions). Other benefits include:

  • The reduction of environmental harm from diesel spills,
  • The elimination of the cost and emissions of transporting the fuel to the community,
  • The elimination of health hazards for community members,
  • A stabilization, and likely reduction, of the cost of energy which can encourage new businesses and unlock economic development opportunities, and
  • A reduction in the amount of money governments and ratepayers put towards subsidizing energy for remote communities (in Ontario, ratepayers cover 34.5% of the costs of diesel generation in its remote communities).

Finally, remote renewable energy financing needs to start looking comprehensively at energy in these communities. This means moving beyond merely power generation to examine the other components of the system like heating and servicing, and the promotion of energy conservation and efficiency. These are critical components to energy security in the north and help ensure the viability of clean energy efforts.

Community Capacity

Internal capacity and leaders, like Peter Kirby, enable communities to lead the shift to renewable energy.

Internal capacity and leaders, like Peter Kirby, enable communities to lead the shift to renewable energy.

Renewable-energy-for-diesel projects need to be led by the communities that they serve. Not only does this ensure widespread support and participation from the community, but it also fosters a sense of local ownership and deep understanding of the project. Unfortunately, most communities lack the internal capacity to take a leadership role in moving to renewable energy.

If we can build the internal capacity of these communities and support the growth of community champions, then we’ll see the switch from diesel to renewable become truly scalable as communities will become proactive change agents.Communities need champions – individuals rooted in the community, who understand the whole clean energy process, and are eager to drive it forward. It’s one of the main drivers of our 20/20 Catalysts Program: to allow Indigenous individuals to learn from mentors and leaders who’ve already gone through the process and can share their knowledge. Leaders like Peter Kirby of the Taku River Tlingit who successfully led his community off diesel through the installation of a micro-hydro project. And there is great interest here too – the first two Catalyst applicants for the 20/20 Program are from remote communities in Quebec and the Northwest Territories looking for clean energy solutions.

Time to make it happen – Off-Grid Strategic & Sustainable Energy Infrastructure

We applaud Prime Minister Trudeau and provincial/territorial Premiers.  Government commitment to improving the quality of life and energy security for those living in diesel-dependant communities is timely and vital. Through government action, financial innovation, and building community capacity, the transition can become truly scalable and we’ll be able to see multiple communities at a time move to renewables – improving their community health and economic vitality, helping Canada achieve its climate change targets. Let’s make it happen.



Chris Henderson & Ian Scholten

20/20 Catalysts Program – Building Indigenous clean energy capacity.