Spotlight: Bioenergy in Indigenous communities

Using wood-based biofuels for heat and power can be a cost-competitive, economically sustainable and reliable alternative to non-renewable energy sources. This is particularly true for many of the remote and northern Indigenous communities across Canada that currently rely on imported, expensive and greenhouse gas intensive diesel fuel for the production of electricity. Recognizing the environmental and economic benefits of using forest biomass for heat and power, a number of Indigenous communities throughout the country have undertaken a transition to bioenergy technologies.

A clean supply of energy

Whitesand First Nation, an Indigenous community located about 250 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, Ontario, is one of 25 remote communities in northwestern Ontario that are not connected to the provincial electrical grid and are completely reliant on diesel fuel for power generation. Because of the region’s extreme cold temperatures, Whitesand First Nation’s diesel generator operates near peak capacity during the long winter months, using approximately 1 million litres of fuel annually. At an average of $0.47/litre, the fuel costs the community hundreds of thousands of dollars each year.

The Province of Ontario is currently expanding the electrical grid, but Whitesand First Nation is not expecting to be connected, because of its remoteness. With the support of the Government of Canada and the Province of Ontario, Whitesand First Nation is developing plans for a pellet manufacturing plant and a heat and power biomass facility. Once constructed, these facilities will provide a clean supply of electricity for the communities of Collins and Armstrong, and replace an estimated 90-95% of the diesel-generated electricity used by Whitesand First Nation. The facilities will be operated by community members and sourced by local hardwood resources, providing approximately 50 full-time and 60 seasonal employment opportunities.

Bioenergy in the North

Recognizing the economic and environmental benefits of forest-based bioenergy, the Government of Northwest Territories set out to increase the use of biomass across the territory through its biomass energy strategies, released in 2010 and 2012. Activities since then have focused on transitioning public buildings to biomass heating systems, examining the potential for integrating biomass in public housing, and partnering with the Government of Canada to support Indigenous communities in creating Indigenous-owned firms to manage forest resources and supply wood fibre to local producers of bioenergy products. A key private partner in this process has recently purchased 320 hectares of land from the hamlet of Enterprise to support a proposed wood pellet venture.

Photo of town by Great Slave Lake, Northwest Territories
Town by Great Slave Lake, Northwest Territories.

A viable option

The transition to biomass energy by Whitesand First Nation and the Government of Northwest Territories highlights the inherent value of capitalizing on the use of sustainably harvested local forest products and the unique capacity of Canada’s forests to contribute to climate change mitigation objectives, create local employment opportunities and ultimately enable remote and northern communities to achieve greater energy self-sufficiency. These initiatives also demonstrate the viability of transitioning to alternative fuel sources for other remote and northern communities and governments.

Remote Indigenous communities across Canada

Map of Canada showing the location of all the remote Indigenous communities across the country with a focus on Whitesand First Nation

Whitesand First Nation

Registered band members: 1,239

On the reserve

Population: 354

Number of households: 87

Main power source: diesel fuel

There are approximately 192 remote Indigenous communities in Canada, representing 268,835 people, and 136 communities rely on diesel fuel as their main power source.

  • Natural Resources Canada has defined "off-grid communities" based on the 2013 report, Status of Remote/Off-Grid Communities in Canada, which states the following:

    The terms "off-grid community" and "remote community" are used interchangeably within the context of this report for communities that fulfill the following criteria:

    1. Any community not currently connected to the North-American electrical grid nor to the piped natural gas network; and
    2. Is a permanent or long-term (5 years or more) settlement with at least 10 dwellings.

    The North-American electrical grid is further defined in the Canadian context as any provincial grid under the jurisdiction of the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) and including the Newfoundland and Labrador main grid but excluding all territorial grids and provincial local grids.