As a child in Old Massett, Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas knew a time before grid power.
At night, for a few hours, he remembers Uncle Adam Bell firing a small generator to keep the lights on.
“That was electricity in Old Massett.”
Today nearly all Haida Gwaii buildings are grid-connected. But about two thirds of the electricity still comes from burning diesel.
It takes about 10 million litres a year just to run the Masset diesel generating station, the only power source for the grid north of Tlell.
Between electricity, heat, and getting around, people on Haida Gwaii burn millions of litres more.
“We are a dirty island,” quipped Dana Moraes, speaking at a two-day Renewable Energy Symposium hosted late last month by the Swiilawiid Sustainability Society.
The local non-profit started two years ago with the goal of getting Haida Gwaii off diesel power.
Haida Nation President Peter Lantin, kil tlaats’gaa, agreed it’s a top priority — one that unites everyone who lives here.
“It’s a foreign substance, and Haida Gwaii has the energy that we need,” Lantin said, noting that the islands have many options for renewable technology, including solar, tidal, wind, biomass, or run-of-river hydro.
There are also choices for ownership.
“This is also one of the most important economic projects in modern times,” Lantin said.
“We have the Gwaii Trust, we have the Athlii Gwaii Legacy Trust… should we invest in ourselves?”
“I think we all know the answer to that question — an absolutely resounding yes.”
Going with the flow
When BC Hydro last put a call-out for clean power projects on Haida Gwaii in 2012, it highlighted the islands’ big opportunity and greatest challenge.
Given how costly it is to produce Haida Gwaii’s diesel power — local power bills are heavily subsidized by BC Hydro — there is a bigger payoff here for trying leading-edge renewable technology.
As it happens, from now until 2024, Natural Resources Canada has budgeted $220 million for pilot projects that reduce diesel fuel reliance in remote communities.
But on the other hand, because a subsea power link between Haida Gwaii and the mainland would likely cost $300 to $500 million, there is no easy backup — the islands need a firm and steady power source.
That is why BC Hydro has generally favoured a shift to small hydro projects that keep diesel as a back-up.
Since 1990, that is how things already work on Haida Gwaii’s south grid, which powers Sandspit to Tlell.
About 80 per cent of the power comes from a small hydro plant at Moresby Lake, which is currently run by a Boston-based company, Atlantic Power. The diesel generating station along the highway to Sandspit only fires up whenever water levels are low.
Trent Moraes, deputy chief councillor of the Skidegate Band Council, says the village has recently partnered with Old Massett, Atlantic Power, and NRStore, an energy storage developer, to look at upgrading the existing hydro generation at Moresby Lake.
“We don’t want to recreate the wheel,” Moraes said.
Skidegate has already had a lot of success in renewable energy, ranging from solar hot water projects to installing heat pumps in almost every home, not to mention the new solar arrays that now power the George Brown Rec Centre and much of the Kay Centre, which also has a Tesla charger for electric cars.
At any time, Skidegate can see exactly how much power the whole village is using, and local staff are training to offer energy audits across Haida Gwaii. There is also a study underway to look at installing rooftop solar panels on people’s homes.
Moraes said many of those initiatives have come from partnering with BC Hydro. But the key is that Skidegate has made energy issues a priority since 2005.
“I don’t think it’s apparent to people that Skidegate is only successful on energy for that reason — we’ve been working on this a long time now.”
George Pattison also knows a thing or two about hard work, and energy.
Pattison moved to Haida Gwaii as a doctor in 1976, but has since done everything from forestry to carpentry to fishing, not to mention the 20 years he grew Island Joe’s tomatoes in eco-powered greenhouses on the Pattison family farm in Bearskin Bay.
Having set up a small run-of-river project for the farm, in 2002 Pattison turned his eye to the bigger picture and started researching a promising watershed near Van Inlet, close to Rennell Sound.
Working with a hydrologist and local board of directors, in 2007 Pattison founded the Van Inlet Hydro Corporation and for five years the group took streamflow data at ZZ Creek, even when it meant paddling iced-over lakes in winter.
Combined with another small hydro project at the neighbouring Clapp Basin Head Creek, the Van Inlet Hydro proposal could nearly replace diesel power on Graham Island. No fish would be affected, and the power line stretching to Port Clements would mainly use existing forestry roads.
“Haida Gwaii is an ideal place to capture this renewable energy — there is an abundance of rain, and the presence of mountains,” said Kayla McDermitt, speaking on Pattison’s behalf.
“Now or never, it’s time to make more sustainable decisions.”
Van Inlet isn’t the only homegrown power project on Haida Gwaii.
Since 2010, Yourbrook Energy Systems has been working toward a slow-turning, tidal-powered water pump that could actually provide the same kind of firm power as a conventional hydro project.
“We looked at all the problems everyone else was having promising tidal energy,” said Clyde Greenough, who formed Yourbrook together with Laird Bateham, the inventor of the tidal system, as well as Dan Abbott and Alden Bateham.
Sitting on the water surface and spinning at less than 10 revolutions a minute, the Yourbrook tidal wheel avoids impacts to fish, and it’s easier to maintain than the fast, seafloor-mounted turbines trialed in places such as the Bay of Fundy.
To get firm power, the paddlewheel drives a piston that in turn pumps fresh water through a closed loop of pipes, generating enough pressure to run a hydro turbine.
Some of the water would also be pumped to an uphill reservoir.
“When the tide slacks, it’s released to keep the turbine running around the clock,” said Greenough, comparing the reservoir to a giant battery.
During the renewable energy symposium in Old Massett, islanders got a chance to see the Yourbrook prototype by the Masset dock. The design already has a European patent approved and North American ones underway, and the 1:10 scale prototype was tested last year in Juskatla Narrows.
However, Haida hereditary chiefs raised concerns about using the Juskatla Narrows site for a full trial.
But after consulting with the chiefs and the Council of the Haida Nation, Yourbrook is now exploring an alternative site on the eastern side of Masset Inlet, north of Kumdis Island.
“We have a high regard for Clyde and his crew, and the way they’ve conducted their business,” said Frank Collison, Sithlda, one of the Haida hereditary leaders.
“They’ve done all the right things — they’ve come to the Haida Nation, they’ve come to the chiefs council, made sure things are okay and didn’t try to steamroll it through or anything.
“I can say that we’re 100 per cent behind their technology and want to wish them well in their endeavours.”
On Wednesday, Oct. 23, Yourbrook announced that the National Research Council of Canada will run a performance study and computational fluid dynamics analysis of its design. The independent which should help refine its design.
After more testing of the existing prototype, the next step is to build a four-wheel, two-megawatt model that actually generates electricity for the grid.
In the long-term, they hope to develop the technology for other B.C. coastal communities that use diesel power, as well as for powering remote industrial sites, fishing lodges, and even pumping water through inland fish farms.
“Our big dream is to build these things locally and expand internationally,” said Greenough.
“We’re dedicated to resolving the problem of local reliance on diesel, just like everybody else in this room is trying to do. We’re all on the same page.”