Indigenous Solar Farm: A Journey Toward a Carbon-Free Microgrid
Written by Tazrin Jahan Priyanka
With the ongoing issues related to Decarbonization and Net Zero emissions, there is a need for more penetration of renewable sources, like solar, to be a part of the power grid. However, many indigenous communities currently relying on expensive and polluting diesel fuel for power generation have a great potential to meet their energy needs from Carbon-free sources like solar with enhanced reliability.
The Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation's (ACFN) solar farm in Fort Chipewyan in Alberta, Canada, is one example, which is Canada's largest off-grid solar project. The Fort Chipewyan solar farm has been installed in partnership with Three Nations Energy (3NE), jointly owned by the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, Mikisew Cree First Nation, and Fort Chipewyan Métis Association. This solar farm is designed by ATCO (a retail electricity and natural gas provider company), and the project was divided into two phases. The first phase included 1,500 solar panels with a total rated capacity of 600 kW that was owned and managed by ATCO. In contrast, the second phase included 5760 solar panels of 2.2 MW owned by all three Indigenous communities and operated by ATCO. Both phases were taken place one after the other, and Alberta and the federal governments paid 7.8 million Canadian dollars for the project. Now, the solar farm is owned by the Three Nations Energy LP (3NE) and managed by ATCO Power. This project satisfies around 25% energy of the Fort Chipewyan remote community replacing approximately 800,000 litres of diesel fuel and decreasing around 2,170 tonnes of GHG emissions each year, reducing the community's dependency on diesel fuel for power .
Background of the Problem
Fort Chipewyan, usually referred to as Fort Chip, is situated nearly 200 km north of Fort McMurray and is on the southwest of Athabasca Lake (Canada). This community is only accessible by plane or boat in the summer and by a winter road in the winter . The current population of Fort Chipewyan is 1,000 inhabitants. This off-grid community is entirely dependent on diesel plants for electricity provided by ATCO, the annual average diesel consumption was 4.7 million liters in 2017 . The community's average wind speed and solar radiation are approximately 4 m/s and 6.29 kWh/m2/day, respectively . The energy usages breakdown in 2017 in Fort Chipewyan is presented in Table 1.
Table 1: Energy usage breakdown in Fort Chipewyan 
|Energy Type||Energy consumption (kWh)||Energy consumption (MJ)||Diesel volume (L)|
Summary of the Project
Three Nations Energy LP (3NE) comprises of Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, Mikisew Cree First Nation, and Fort Chipewyan Métis Association. The 3NE received $3.3 million in carbon tax money from the Alberta government to build and operate this largest solar farm in Canada. Additionally, the federal government supported a $4.5 million fund to this project on top of the $3.3 million funding from the provincial government of Alberta. The construction of the solar farm was started in February 2020. ATCO completed the adjacent solar farm in July 2019, and now the solar farm with a total capacity of 2200 kW is supported with a 1.6 MWh battery storage system owned by ATCO. This storage system is equivalent to the amount of electricity used by about 330 homes for one hour. Moreover, the 3NE solar farm project was one of the first projects permitted by the Alberta Utilities Commission (AUC) under the 2018 Small Scale (Community) Generation Regulation. Table 2 exhibits a summary of the solar project in Fort Chipewyan.
Table 2: Summary of the solar project in Fort Chip 
|Schedule:||2019 - 2020|
|Developer:||Three Nations Energy LP|
Benefits of the Project
- The solar farm project provides around 40 jobs to the local people of the community.
- It helps the community to be energy independent.
- It reduces dependency on fossil fuels (a reduction in usage of 800,000 litres of diesel fuel per year).
- It reduces greenhouse gas emissions significantly (a reduction of 2,170 tonnes CO2 emissions per year).
- It also eliminates the noise and odor of the diesel generator.
- It decreases the risk of accidents on the winter road and in the community.
- It lowers wear and tears on the ice road as well.
Fort Chipewyan is located a long way from an ideal solar location. While the solar field provides 100% of the power during the summer, the hamlet displays only 6.8 hours of daylight when the heating requirement is at its peak (between October and February). Though this community has renewable resources, it is impractical to completely shift away from diesel due to high shipping, distribution, and storage costs. It is estimated that 10-12% of the energy that Fort Chipewyan requires will come from solar and battery storage energy systems in the future. However, the current storage system can only satisfy short-term energy demands. It would be economically infeasible to design a battery storage system to satisfy only the seasonal energy demand.
- “Fort Chipewyan Solar Farm,” Alberta. https://majorprojects.alberta.ca/details/Fort-Chipewyan-Solar-Farm/3809 (accessed Jan. 30, 2022).
- “Fort Chipewyan,” Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo. https://www.rmwb.ca/en/indigenous-and-rural-relations/fort-chipewyan.aspx (accessed Jan. 30, 2022).
- S. Santana, N. Szczygiel, and P. Redondo, “LNG as a clean alternative fuel for Canada’s remote communities,” Int. J. Integr. Care, vol. 14, no. July, pp. 1–10, 2014.
- Canadian Wind Energy Atlas, “Modelled Historical Data,” Government of Canada. http://www.windatlas.ca/series/telechargements-en.php.
This article was edited by Cesar Duarte.