In 2009, Whitesand First Nation created the Community Sustainability Initiative (CSI). This forward-thinking initiative aims to lead the community out of economic despair, and to address social, cultural, environmental and education problems. CSI has the goal of improving the livelihoods of community members through sustainable use of the local forest including sustainable management practices, capacity building, innovation and green energy production.
The Whitesand First Nation community had envisioned a future without diesel-generated electricity for over 20 years. In 1992, the communities of Whitesand and Armstrong submitted a proposal for a Community Forest including a biomass energy production which was not approved. Whitesand didn’t give up – they had a vision. In 2015 Whitesand received a Directive from the Ministry of Energy for the completion of a Power Purchase Agreement (PPA) with the Independent Electrical System Operator and a Renewable Energy Approval (REA) for the plant. Both the PPA and REA represent the first of their kind in Ontario.
Connecting the dots: local forest, low-carbon economy, high unemployment
Whitesand First Nation is located about 250 kilometers north of Thunder Bay and currently receives all its electricity from a diesel generator. The community energy needs are nearing the current available generator capacity restricting new housing developments and economic initiatives. The community experiences high unemployment and many people on reserve receive social benefits. There is little chance for meaningful work and many of the individuals receiving benefits are without grade twelve education.
Historically, Whitesand had hardly benefitted from the local forest as the forest industry approach was based on harvesting trees and transporting them elsewhere for further processing. As the industry abandoned the forest in 2007, it was transferred to a Crown Forest. The Whitesand community and its lead project managers Craig Toset and David Mackett, saw more than just trees in the local forest. They saw the opportunity to realize the CSI vision and meet its goals and objectives of green energy and sustainable employment.
Several drivers helped Whitesand achieve this vision. The first big step was the Provincial Wood Supply Competition. In 2011, Whitesand was awarded a fibre commitment to fuel a wood pellet plant, cogeneration plant and a small sawmill. Another driver was the Long Term Energy Plan of the Ontario Ministry of Energy that recognized the participation of First Nation communities in the energy sector is important for their economic development. It also concluded that Whitesand would not be connected to the Ontario transmission grid. Another driver for this project was the goal to switch to a low carbon economy by the Ontario Ministry of Environment.
A biomass plant bringing electricity, heat and economic development
Today this vision is about to become reality with anticipated construction starting this year. The community energy project will build a biomass combined heat and power plant to provide electricity to three communities (Whitesand, Collins and Armstrong) and turn the diesel generator into a standby electricity source. Remaining power will be allocated to a wood pellet manufacturing plant. Wood by-products and waste will serve as fuel for the biomass plant. The heat generated from the plant will be used to heat the pellet plant and dry the pellet feedstock.
The project will provide the community with a steady stream of revenue through pellet production, and the sale of reliable electricity. Money will stay in the community instead of flowing out for importing expensive diesel. The entire biomass operation isanticipated to provide approximately 50 full-time and 60 seasonal jobs. Moreover, this initiative leads to pride of ownership, empowerment and opportunity of community reinvestment. Whitesand has already trained 13 members of the community in a 56 weeklong program enabling them to perform several jobs across all plant operations.
And the vision doesn’t end here: in the future, waste heat might be used to grow healthy fresh food in a greenhouse and a small sawmill may be added to manufacture pallets for the shipments of wood pellets. Moreover, Whitesand homes that aren’t already heated with wood could be converted to pellet heat.
The long standing vision will empower Whitesand to create economic, environmental and social benefits for the community and region.