A Community Transforming Its Energy Systems—And Its Future
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.
Northlands Dënesųłiné is one of four diesel-dependent communities in Manitoba—and one of more than 250 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
Work on this project—the ERAAES (Environmental Remediation And Alternative Energy Systems) project—began in 2015. However, 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.
The ERAAES project has six components:
- remediation and clean-up of two diesel contamination sites in the community
- 1.5 MW biomass district heating system
- log-yard and logging operation to harvest local fire-kill wood for fuel for the biomass system
- 140 kW lake-based geothermal district heating and cooling system
- 282 kW solar PV park – nearly 1,000 panels
- 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
Project construction 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.
All of the components of the project were completed on time and on budget at the end of 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.
With all systems now functioning, it is fair to say that Northlands Dënesųłiné First Nation is one of the leading alternative-energy communities in Canada.
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 begun in Northlands
- integration, so these systems can work with other initiatives in this community, including initiatives for waste, recycling, local food, & housing
As significant as the ERAAES project is, it is only the start.
The Northlands community and its support team have now developed 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.
1. Local Jobs
The project has been designed so that much of the remediation and construction work could be done by local employees, working with a multidisciplinary team of experts.
The project also created permanent local jobs to harvest and process the biomass, and to operate and maintain the three energy systems.
2. Local Control
These energy systems are owned and operated by the community.
All three energy systems were designed so that they can be added onto in future years.
This project was designed so that it can be duplicated—with modifications for local energy sources—in other northern communities.
5. Contamination & Risk Reduction
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 soil for gardening.
6. GHG Reduction
This project has reduced the community’s GHG emissions by roughly 1/6—about 800 tonnes per year.
Future expansion will reduce these emissions by 90%.
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.
1. Remediation & Clean-Up
The two diesel contamination sites in Northlands that were 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 in the summer of 2017 and was completed by 2020.
Using injection techniques (rather than the more traditional dig-and-dump approach) reduces the diesel required to do the cleanup, provided training to local community members on contaminated site clean-up, and provided 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 was installed, integrated with a new underground district energy loop.
The 50/50 water/glycol mixture in the loop provides the primary heat to the school (with the school’s existing diesel heating system remaining as back-up). It also provides back-up heat to the buildings that are 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) are now 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 were hooked up in 2018.
5. A Solar PV Park
Installation of the new 282 kW Solar PV Park began in 2017. It was tied into the local diesel grid operated by Manitoba Hydro in fall 2020.
The Solar PV Park generates 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 one of the largest in northern Canada.
There are at least 5 different aspects of integration in this project:
- The biomass and geothermal systems are 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 automatically kicks 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 is integrated with the existing local electrical grid, operated by Manitoba Hydro.
- The monitoring systems for 3 energy systems (biomass, geothermal, and solar PV) are 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 are integrated with local wastewater treatment, with the wastewater system being used as a 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.