Old Crow solar farm (Photo: GBP Creative)
Old Crow is off the grid. The closest community is a hundred miles away and no roads lead to the Gwich’in community in the Yukon. Its remote location has for many years rendered Old Crow dependent on diesel – until now. In 2008, the Vuntut Gwitchin Government decided to find green energy alternatives for their community and to gain long-term energy sovereignty and security. Their initial solar project has since scaled up and once fully operational, Old Crow’s solar farm will reduce the amount of fuel used by the community’s generators by 190,000 liters diesel each year and cut greenhouse gas emissions by 680 tons CO2e per year – the equivalent of taking 140 cars off the road. Learn more about Old Crow’s green energy transition from Chief Dana Tizya-Tramm.
Old Crow (Photo by Jordan Peterson)

When we first had electricity in our community, in about 1978, my grandfather – it is said – could run with the caribou. Now, his grandson is flying around the world with a supercomputer in his pocket. As we have “progressed” through the values of our economies and our societies, we have mistakenly left the bosom and cradle of species, which is the land and the animals. But at a time when our decisions are more important than ever, I look to the many solutions that are there. I know that for our community it is important to be able to take advantage of these technologies, technologies that are embodying our Indigenous values of living in balance with our land in perpetuity. – Dana Tizya-Tramm, Chief, Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation

To set the scene, can you tell us something about Old Crow?

Old Crow is a small rural community 80 miles of the Arctic Circle in the Yukon Territory, over one hundred miles from any other community. It’s home to the self-governing Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation. We are a small village of 250 people that is not connected to any major road system – or any road system at all – nor to any centralized energy grid. So, diesel has to be flown in by planes and we were generating electricity at some of the highest economic and ecological costs in Canada.

Our people have been occupying this area as archaeological evidence suggests going back 27,000 years. And, I constantly ask myself: How were our people able to thrive in this inhospitable environment? Because we survive off the energy systems local to our areas, the energy in the plants, the animals and in the nutrients – all driven by the sun. So, in this respect, our solar energy project is an application of modern technology that gives us economic and energy sovereignty for our community.

Old Crow solar farm (Photo: GBP Creative)
The Old Crow solar farm (Photo: GBP Creative)

Can you describe the Old Crow Solar Project to us?

We have 2160 single sided mono-crystalline panels configured in an east/west orientation to maximize generation through the long daylight hours and trajectory of the Arctic summer sun. We found that even in minimal daylight, sunlight reflects from the snow and generates electricity. Utilizing the power of the sun and photons through a photovoltaic system that converts them to electrons, we will be generating 940 kW of electricity (with inverter capacity of 480 kW) and through a microgrid system deliver clean energy to our community.

Moreover, we have an Electricity Purchase Agreement that governs the fiscal relationship between our local utility and our community. Through this agreement we are selling the shareholders of the local utility energy generated by sunlight at 65 cents per kwh. This will be unlocking 410,000 Canadian dollars per year over the 25-year lifespan of the project.So, what we effectively have done with this technology is to unlock our centralized relationship, where our fiscal energies were going to another shareholder, therefore draining our community. The 10.5 million dollars the solar project will generate over 25 years will be invested into new projects: biomass, wind energy, etc.

How did you go about engaging community members in the discussion about the project?

Modelling showed us the project would reduce 680 tons of CO2e each year by avoiding diesel combustion and the transportation of diesel. That was a mandate that resonated very easily within the community. Thus, there was no pushback from the community and we had full support across the board. We held very open and wide community sessions including everyone – from young children to our elders.

But, I would also like to add that the elders were the only ones who gave us some very stern words. We were not to build the solar farm over a local berry patch. However, this was actually the best area for placing the panels. So, what we ended up doing was designing a project that minimized disturbance to the local flora, and did not require fencing that would exclude citizen access to the site. So, our elders will be picking berries in an ancient natural energy system beside a new modern technological energy system.

Old Crow solar farm (Photo: GBP Creative)
Ancient and modern energy systems side by side. (Photo: GBP Creative)

How have the Covid-19 restrictions impacted your project?

It has proven to be extremely difficult as we don’t have technical expertise within our community and we are relying on technical consultants from outside the country. So, because of the pandemic, we were not able to do a full launch of the project this year. Once fully up and running, the project will allow us to put energy directly on to the grid. This will enable us to turn off the diesel generators as our battery system has electricity for one hour, which is enough time for the diesel generator to safely start back up when solar generation is interrupted by cloud cover or other intermittencies. Thus, unfortunately, our diesel generators are still running but once clearance is giving and the pandemic settles down a bit, we will be able to bring in the technical expertise that can bring the project to its full viability.

In the long term, I think the pandemic proves the need for communities to have energy sovereignty, especially rural communities depending on diesel generators. We will make further investments to cover the remaining energy needs of our community; the solar farm project alone will eventually satisfy one quarter of our needs.

Learn more:

And watch Chief Dana Tizya-Tramm's interventions during the Arctic Resilience Forum's energy session: