Indigenous Communities Building the Capacity to Lead Clean Energy Projects

by Ian Scholten - Project Manager, Lumos Energy

Clean energy projects hold a lot of potential for Indigenous communities in Canada. Not just in terms of revenue or jobs but long term economic development and opportunities to address major community challenges including housing, education, and public health issues. Yet, about half of the potential benefits of participating in clean energy projects simply aren’t being realized in communities. Why? Lack of capacity.

These are three words we unfortunately hear all too often when it comes to Aboriginal communities. Decades of injustice have put communities at a disadvantage in many areas. Clean energy is one of those areas. The rate at which the sector is growing can make it extremely difficult to understand all of the opportunities, let alone effectively maximize the social and economic benefits that accompany them.

What does it look like when the capacity to develop clean energy projects is present in Aboriginal communities?

Here are two examples:

Pit Cook 25th April 2009 003T’Sou-ke Nation on Vancouver Island took their time organizing their efforts to pursue roof top solar projects in their community. When all was said and done, members of the community were trained to install the solar system (both solar panels and solar hot water systems), the community received multiple awards for the initiative, and they leveraged the opportunity secondary benefits including eco-tourism. The community is now building on this success through new initiatives like a green house that will produce wasabi for an international market, and provide further training and jobs.

On the other side of the country, the Ojbways of the Pic River First Nation have been building their capacity in hydropower. They first got involved in the early 1990s. In this first project, they were only able to secure minority ownership. Since then, they’ve continued to build their capacity through four more hydro projects. The end result? They wholly own three out of four of these projects and are majority owners of the final one. Together, these projects generate huge amounts of revenue (over $1 million per year) for the community.

But how can other communities start to capitalize on these opportunities in the same way T’Sou-ke Nation and the Ojibways of the Pic River have? By building the internal capacity to lead projects. That’s when you start making the most of clean energy for your community.

Capacity in this case doesn’t just refer to technical or trades training. Though those are integral to securing jobs in projects, capitalizing on the full range of opportunities that come with clean energy requires knowledge in five key areas: community engagement, economic development, job creation, project financing, and strategic reinvestment. Having the ability within your community to effectively tackle these areas will ensure that both immediate and long-term benefits flow from the project.

It’s important to note, though, that building capacity is not about becoming an expert in all areas of project development (yes, you will likely still need consultants). It’s about gaining the confidence to lead projects and make informed decisions.

A good place to start building the capacity needed to be leaders in clean energy is by learning directly from the people who’ve led these projects. People like Chief Gordon Planes of T’Sou-ke Nation and Byron LeClair, Director of Energy Projects for the Ojibways of the Pic River. Building these connections and developing a community of practice is exactly what we’re doing through the 20/20 Catalysts Program: a hands-on clean energy capacity building program being developed by Lumos Energy and the Aboriginal Human Resource Council. Over the course of three months, Aboriginal individuals will connect with and learn from leaders who have implemented renewable energy projects across Canada. It’s an opportunity to learn effective strategies for maximizing community benefits. Participants in the program will be expected to bring the knowledge they gain back to their community and, this is the key part: apply it to the projects they are working on.

Building capacity will take time and hands-on experience. But by putting in the effort and ensuring it becomes a requirement in all partnerships, you can gain the confidence you need to position your community to play a leading role in clean energy projects.