After years of reliance on noisy, diesel-powered generators, there is finally some blissful silence at the remote Gull Bay First Nation community on the western shore of Lake Nipigon, 200 kilometres north of Thunder Bay.
A micro-grid, the first fully-integrated, remote, renewable, energy-storage installation of its kind in Canada, has been set up at the Ojibway community of 300, enabling the generators to be turned off a lot more.
“The diesel generators aren’t going all night anymore,” explained Mashkawiziiwin Energy projects co-ordinator AJ Esquega who was brought on board to get the project going. “If it’s a good sunny day — all day — we can go up to 11 hours during the day completely solar and it will power the whole community.
“The system provides 360 kilowatts of power for the community, just enough power. It will, of course, go down during the winter because there’s less daylight but if it’s sunny it doesn’t take much to charge that battery.”
The project, officially known as the Giizis Energy Solar Storage Micro Grid, uses solar, battery storage and automated control technology. More than 1,000 ground-mounted solar panels have been installed along with lithium-ion batteries and a sophisticated control system that integrates the energy from the solar panels and more than 80 battery modules with the community’s existing power distribution system.
“The benefits are that we don’t have to use diesel and we have cleaner air and there’s less noise,” said Esquega.
The project, which cost about $8 million, was a joint effort between the community and Ontario Power Generation (OPG). Alltrade Industrial was the general contractor.
Gull Bay, also known as Kiashke Zaaging Anishinaabek, is the first remote community in Canada to use renewable energy. It is OPG’s fifth development project with an Indigenous community.
During the day, all of Gull Bay’s energy needs are provided by the micro-grid. While the grid won’t completely eliminate the community’s reliance on diesel, it’s expected to reduce consumption by 25 per cent, or 130,000 litres annually. The generator will still be used as a backup and be used more in winter.
Esquega said the project helped reconcile a troubled past between Gull Bay and OPG.
In the 1940s, dams constructed by OPG along the Nipigon River caused flooding on Gull Bay lands, desecrating gravesites and resulting in a significant amount of the community’s shoreline being lost. In 2014, OPG and Gull Bay reached a settlement of $12.5 million. OPG also issued an apology for the project.
Esquega said that, after the grievance was settled, OPG expressed interest in working on a good-faith project with Gull Bay and the two came up with the micro-grid project. Gull Bay had previously been deemed one of four communities that would not be hooked up to the power grid because it wasn’t feasible.
“We had to look at other means of power, so that’s when OPG and Gull Bay said, ‘Hey, what about micro-grid technology paired with battery energy storage as an innovative and showcase project?’ ” said Esquega.
The rest is history. Discussions between OPG and Gull Bay began in 2015 and shovels were put in the ground in March 2018.
The solar panels were installed on helical piles and connected to an electrical house with a micro-grid controller, 15 inverters and a breaker. Another building houses battery modules and a battery computer.
Due to the remote location of Gull Bay, a major construction challenge was ensuring that materials were delivered on time, said Esquega. It was also challenging if a part or tool broke or there was a wrong-fitting piece or bolt, as it could take a day or more to get the part or tool delivered from Thunder Bay.
On one occasion, a crane that was to be used to lift the panels broke down on its way to Gull Bay, but the company had another that was sent, said Esquega.
“The delay could have cost us a lot but luckily enough they had extra supply and were able to come up with something right away and we were thankful for that.”
The project was completed in early August and is now successfully generating power for the community.
Gull Bay’s development corporation, Ma’iingan Development Inc., is now responsible for operation and maintenance of the grid.