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Whapmagoostui’s path to a future of clean renewable energy

BY Patrick Quinn Feb 26, 2021

A new wind energy project in Whapmagoostui-Kuujjuaraapik is launching environmental and social impact assessments for the twin communities’ Cree and Inuit populations. Community consultations that began February 16 will determine the social acceptability of the project, which proposes to partly replace the use of diesel-powered electricity with renewable energy.

“This project is important for the community in that it will help reduce greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to global climate change,” said Anthony Ittoshat, mayor of Kuujjuaraapik and vice-president of the newly created Kuujjuaraapik-Whapmagoostui Renewable Energy Corporation (KWREC).

When Hydro-Québec notified the two villages of plans to upgrade the existing diesel powerhouse in 2011, they mobilized to pursue a sustainable energy alternative. Nimschu Iskudow, a subsidiary of Whapmagoostui Cree Nation, was created to join Kuujjuaraapik’s Sakkuq Landholding Corporation in studying solar, biomass and other energy alternatives – eventually opting for wind. 

On a trip in 2014 to China, the world leader in wind-power generation, they found two companies willing to invest in the project. Stalled negotiations with Hydro-Québec led to interventions from the Quebec Energy Board, which directed the crown corporation to collaborate with both communities. 

“We’re producing energy and Hydro-Québec has agreed to buy that power,” KWREC president Matthew Mukash told the Nation. “We brought up the blackout issue in our community – 20 a year, especially in wintertime. One time the powerhouse caught on fire. We’re negotiating the power-purchasing agreement, which will be concluded in March.” 

With diesel’s pollution and rising costs, KWREC hopes to eventually relegate the old power plant built by the Canadian Army in the 1950s to an emergency backup supply. The proposed wind turbines will generate approximately six gigawatt-hours of electricity annually over the project’s estimated 25-year lifespan, contributing about 40% of the community’s energy needs.

“We wanted to displace the most electricity possible, which will require a big battery installed by Hydro-Québec, because some days you have wind and some you don’t,” said Jean Schiettekatte, Nimschu Iskudow’s technical advisor. “It will be the largest big battery installed in northern Canada. The quantity of CO2 this is replacing is the equivalent of the consumption of 4,000 cars per year.”

As the “first northern green multi-energy off-grid power plant,” KWREC intends to send power from the diesel generator, wind turbines and battery storage system to a central control unit. With the battery capable of providing nearly an hour of community electricity needs, Schiettekatte expects power outages will become a thing of the past.

“People will probably see improvements in the quality of service,” said Schiettekatte. “Over the last years, we did some technical studies. We looked at where we have the most wind, also at constraints like the airport and bird issues – we don’t want to install the turbine by the coast where there is a bird-migration corridor.”

The recommended sites are in mountains seven km from the community where high volumes of wind are registered and environmental impact is minimized. The project originally identified three potential sites, but early consultation with hunters raised concerns about one, so two turbines are currently proposed. 

“The only thing we’ll lose is that beautiful scene we had on the ridge,” Mukash remarked. “Geese would be impacted – we’d like to hear from the hunters what they think about that. As with any large-scale project, the affected community must be well informed and have a say to make an informed decision regarding the proposed project.”

Consultations with various community groups began in December and a large assembly is planned for Crees March 4, depending on pandemic restrictions. Environmental impact consulting company Pesca is managing the assessment under Section 22 of the JBNQA. It is expected to conclude by the end of March.

Completing this assessment before signing an agreement with Hydro-Québec is a significant difference from previous projects imposed on communities.

Decreasing costs are giving wind power a higher profile in Quebec’s energy strategy, with existing hydroelectric infrastructure capable of becoming power storage systems. Building on KWREC’s pilot project, Tarquti Energy Corporation was created between Makivik and the Inuit co-ops to develop similar installations in other Nunavik villages. Although Covid has delayed implementation, Tarquti is currently at the wind-measurement stage.

“Our communities may be the example for other northern communities,” suggested Mukash. “There’s already two wind turbines at the Raglan Mine north of us. Wind development is very much alive in Scandinavian countries, so we know they’re good for this type of weather.”

Selected turbines are expected to have blade-heating systems to prevent ice damage, particularly during periods of freezing rain. While extensive research has determined the optimal turbine model and installation site, the consultation sessions will play a critical role in confirming the final designs. 

“You have to compensate [the turbine location] with the cost of doing the line and access road,” Schiettekatte asserted. “An interconnection line in the north is about a million dollars a kilometre. The cost of doing roads in that area is very expensive so it might be a nice site to eventually have a tourism area. The idea is to create local jobs.”

As the expanding community prepares to welcome wind energy by 2024, the incoming road may stimulate other development aligned with the region’s burgeoning tourism industry, especially since the proposed site is an optimal viewpoint for watching the northern lights.

“We’re an isolated community so if there’s a road for sure you’ll see big traffic because people like to drive out,” Mukash added.

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Patrick Quinn lives in Montreal with his wife and two small children. With a passion for words and social justice, he enjoys sharing Eeyou Istchee's stories and playing music.