A Community Transforming Its Energy Systems—And Its Future

Kids Playing Shinny on Lac Brochet – Nov 2017

If you drive north from Winnipeg for 24 hours—including driving 9 hours north from Lynn Lake on a temporary winter road—you could find yourself in Northlands Dënesųłiné First Nation, one of the most beautiful communities in Manitoba.

The community is set on the shore of Lac Brochet, Manitoba, 425 km west of Churchill—and at the same latitude as Churchill—near the Saskatchewan border. Just over 1,000 people are members of Northlands Dënesųłiné First Nation, with over 850 members living beside Lac Brochet.

Approaching Northlands Dënesųłiné First Nation by Air

Northlands Dënesųłiné is one of four diesel-dependent communities in Manitoba—and one of more than 150 diesel-dependent communities in Canada.
Every year, about 2 million litres of diesel fuel are trucked to Lac Brochet over that temporary winter road. About half is used for heat, and the other half for electricity.

The ERAAES Project

This project—the ERAAES (Environmental Remediation And Alternative Energy Systems) project—has been in the works for about 3 years. But the intention to reduce—and eventually eliminate—dependence on diesel in Manitoba’s northern, isolated communities has been in the works for decades. This project takes the first, big step in making that intention a reality.

Assembling Geothermal Loops for the Lake – Aug 2017

The ERAAES project has six components:

  1. remediation and clean-up of two diesel contamination sites in the community
  2. 1.5 MW biomass district heating system
  3. log-yard and logging operation to harvest local fire-kill wood for fuel for the biomass system
  4. 140 kW lake-based geothermal district heating and cooling system
  5. 282 kW solar PV park – nearly 1,000 panels
  6. integration
    • between 3 energy systems
    • between 2 waste systems—wastewater and diesel remediation
    • with Manitoba Hydro’s local diesel grid
    • between local operators & a remote support team

Pulling Geothermal Loops out into the Lake – Aug 2017

The project launched in February 2017 through INAC’s Contaminated Sites on Reserve Program (CSOR). Funding has come federal sources, including from FCSAP, FCSAP Regional share, Budget 2016, and INAC Regional A-Base.

Now, in 2020, the ERAAES project has replaced 1/3 of the diesel used for heat in Northlands—about 300,000 litres of diesel per year. This is reducing the community’s GHG emissions by about 800 tonnes per year (a reduction of about 18%). The project also marks a big step forward in cleaning up the diesel contamination in the soil and groundwater of the community.

The only remaining step is to commission the solar array, which we will be doing as soon as we can get crews into the community. (Travel is currently being restricted due to COVID-19.) As soon as commissioning is completed and the solar array is providing electricity to the local grid, it is fair to say that Northlands Dënesųłiné First Nation will be one of the leading alternative-energy communities in Canada.

Installing Solar Panels in the Snow – October 2017

Design Priorities

The ERAAES project has several design priorities:

  • ensure work for community members
  • ensure community ownership
  • reduce environmental harm
    • minimize GHG emissions during decontamination
    • achieve net zero emissions with solar PV
  • increase environmental benefit
  • enable future
    • expansion, so more of the diesel in this community can be replaced
    • replication, so other communities can build on the work here
    • integration, so these systems can work with other initiatives in this community, including initiatives for waste, recycling, local food, & housing

All Solar Panels Installed – Nov 2017


As significant as this project is, it is only the start.

The Northlands community and its support team are developing plans now to move towards zero diesel for both heat and electricity using local, non-fossil, clean, renewable energy sources.

When these plans are fully implemented, diesel will be needed only for emergency backup (and perhaps for some heavy vehicles).

The integrated, systematic approach to replacing diesel with alternative energy being pioneered by Northlands can be adapted to other communities in Manitoba—and many other communities throughout Canada’s north—that now depend on diesel.

Starting Fire-Kill Harvesting – Nov 2017


1. Local Jobs

The project has been designed so that much of the remediation and construction work can be done by local employees, working with a multidisciplinary team of experts.

The project will also create permanent local jobs to harvest and process the biomass, and to operate and maintain the three energy systems.

2. Local Control

Assembling Cut Wood for the Log Yard – Nov 2017

These energy systems will be owned and operated by the community.

3. Expandability

All three energy systems are designed so that they can be added onto in future years.

4. Duplicability

This project has been designed so that it can be duplicated—with modifications for local energy sources—in other northern communities.

5. Contamination & Risk Reduction

Beginning to Fill the Log Yard – Dec 2017

Diesel fuel contaminates the soil when it leaks or spills. Diesel fumes from the soil are a health hazard. The diesel in the soil can get into the water table and migrate to the lake water, which is the community’s sole source of drinking water.

The liquids that circulate in the biomass and geothermal district loops are much less harmful than diesel, and break down quickly and naturally if spilled. The systems have monitors built in so that any leaks will be quickly detected and stopped.

Biomass fuel is nothing except wood chips. If they spill, they can either be gathered up and used, or mixed into the soil to make it more fertile.

6. GHG Reduction

This project will reduce the community’s GHG emissions by roughly 1/6—about 800 tonnes per year.

Future expansion options will reduce those emissions further.

7. Habitat for Species at Risk

Caribou avoid burn areas until the forest regrows. The sustainable harvesting and (as needed) regeneration of burn areas will ensure the areas damaged by forest fires become suitable habit for caribou as soon as possible.

Design Components

1. Remediation & Clean-Up

Wood Harvesters On Their Morning Commute – Aug 2019

The two diesel contamination sites in Northlands in most urgent need of clean-up are near the Petit Casmir Memorial School and a cluster of buildings by the lake (the “Lakeside Cluster”), which includes the Head Start Building. Clean-up of these two sites (using in-situ injection) began this past summer (2017) and will be completed no later than 2020.

Using injection techniques (rather than the more traditional dig-and-dump approach) reduces the diesel required to do the cleanup, provides training to local community members on contaminated site clean-up, and provides the community with the equipment needed for further clean-ups.

2. A Biomass District Heating System

In 2018, a dual-boiler 1.5 MW biomass system will be installed, integrated with a new underground district energy loop.

The 50/50 water/glycol mixture in the loop will provide the primary heat to the school (with the school’s existing diesel heating system remaining as back-up). It will also provide back-up heat to the buildings that are going to be heated by the geothermal system in the Lakeside Cluster, as well as heating the domestic hot water for the school and for the buildings in the Lakeside Cluster.

3. A Logging Operation and Log Yard

The biomass system needs approximately 700 tonnes of fuel a year.

This project includes the equipment and training needed for local people to harvest that fuel from the fire-kill in the Lac Brochet area, left over after forest fires. Training began in fall 2017, with full harvesting production starting in 2018.

4. A Lake-Based District Geothermal System

Buildings by the lake (the Lakeside Cluster) will be heated (and, when needed, cooled) using a new geothermal loop drawing energy from the lake.

The in-lake component of this system was installed in summer 2017. The buildings will be hooked up in 2018.

5. A Solar PV Park

The new 282 kW Solar PV Park is being installed now. It will be tied into the local diesel grid operated by Manitoba Hydro in spring 2018.

The Solar PV Park will generate enough electricity in an average year to offset the electricity required by the biomass system’s pumps, the geothermal system’s pumps, and the pumps in the community’s new aerated wastewater treatment system. At 282 kW, this solar array will be the largest in Manitoba.

6. Integration

There are at least 5 different aspects of integration in this project:

  • The biomass and geothermal systems will be integrated. In addition to heating the school, the district heating loop goes through the community and connects to the Lakeside Cluster. If any part of the geothermal system stops working or is taken off line for maintenance, the biomass heating system will automatically kick in to provide the heat to the geothermal-heated buildings. This “belt-and-suspenders” approach is essential to guarantee heat and to enable removal of diesel heating systems in the Lakeside Cluster.
  • The solar PV park will be integrated with the existing local electrical grid, operated by Manitoba Hydro.
  • The monitoring systems for 3 energy systems (biomass, geothermal, and solar PV) will be integrated into the satellite system in the community, so that both the local operators and the remote support team can monitor operations in real time, can be alerted to any problems, and can work together to diagnose and fix those problems.
  • Diesel decontamination activities will be integrated with local wastewater treatment, with the wastewater system being used as an contaminated-site clean-up tool. A new aerated lagoon with an attached SAGR (Submerged Attached Growth Reactor) was installed in 2018. We have consulted with the leading expert on these systems and developed a protocol to integrate decontamination leachate into the new wastewater system.
  • The new lagoon, the solar PV array, the log yard and the biomass building were all built together to form the start of a new Eco-Industrial Park. Future elements of this Eco-Industrial Park will include recycling initiatives and organic composting to support local gardening. Other options for the Park being explored include a chicken coop, a community freezer, and a community laundromat.