Tŝilhqot’in Nation turns former sawmill site into one of the largest solar farms in B.C.
by Racine Jeff
Just outside of William’s Lake, B.C., an old sawmill site has been transformed into one of B.C’s largest solar farms. The solar farm is fully owned and operated by the Tŝilhqot’in National Government.
“The replacement of a big energy-chugging, big monster of a mill, and it got shut down (and) the area was repurposed, that’s huge,” says Ron Sturgess, CEO of Dandzen Development Ltd., the business arm of the Tŝilhqot’in National Government.
Dandzen Development has completed the installation of the 1.25 megawatt solar farm on the former River West sawmill, located an hour west of Williams Lake, B.C. in the traditional territory of the Tŝilhqot’in Nation. All six communities in the Nation had a helping hand in assembling and building the plant.
The Nation is developing their own renewable energy facilities, starting with the Hanceville site, and the development of a second solar farm in the community of Xeni Gwet’in, where the members have relied on generators and smaller solar panels, as they don’t have BC Hydro access.
Sturgess says these projects are “taking away the craziness creating carbons, and now doing good things with it.”
The solar farm is the first in Canada to be owned, operated, and built by a first Nation. Construction started in 2018 and took about three years to complete.
“Dolly Kershaw, economics opportunity coordinator at TNG, was in charge of the project build. Great job! Didn’t have the right tools but pulled it off,” says Sturgess. He calls her “the superwoman who made the dream a reality.”
“The farm can be expanded…building on like Lego.” – Ron Sturgess, Dandzen Development CEO
The training and the opportunity for the Tŝilhqot’in people to learn solar power was a huge plus for this project, according to Sturgess. Having Nation members with knowledge of electricity and construction means there are people on the communities who can help fix homes and build future projects.
The Tŝilhqot’in National government received the Community of the Year Award in November 2019, from Clean Energy BC. More than 1,500 megawatt hours of clean energy are sold to BC Hydro a year through a long-term energy purchase agreement.
“The farm can be expanded, you could build five more on top of what is already there, multiplying the megawatts, and building on like Lego. That means that you could have approximately 10 MWs. If the need gets bigger, and BC Hydro agrees to purchase the energy, that means clean energy for everyone on that grid,” says Sturgess
The location of the solar farm is a huge plus, on top of a mountain, with plenty of sunlight. Nearing the middle of winter and close to February the solar farm’s energy slows down. Otherwise depending on good weather, the solar farm is in the right location to collect good sun.
“Getting into the clean energy business, solar farms are just one piece of it.” – Sturgess
Sturgess is already thinking ahead to the next big project. There are tourism plans for the Territory, with some already started in the community of Xeni Gwet’in. Sturgess says tourists are increasingly driving electric vehicles but right now many avoid going out west because there are few plug-in stations.
“If there was vehicle charging stations all the way to Bella Coola, and TNG started driving electric vehicles, now we aren’t adding to the carbon and climate change, we are actually part of the solution,” he says.
Tŝideldel, Tl’etinqox, and Tl’esqox are right on Highway 20, he notes. Having charging stations situated at gas stations all the way to Bella Coola would mean not only are visitors buying the power that the Nation supplies, but they might go inside and get a coffee and buy some earrings or any locally made Indigenous crafts.
“Electric vehicles are an easy solution for tomorrow,” he says.
“Getting into the clean energy business, solar farms are just one piece of it. What’s next?” he asks. The Tŝilhqot’in Nation is well on its way to building a better future for their members and doing the work to fight climate change.
Ron Sturgess on climate change
Tŝilhqot’in Nation member from Tl’etinqox, BC. Mother of three, Radio Manager at Tŝilhqot’in Radio, and currently enrolled at the First Nations University of Canada, in the Indigenous Communications Arts program (INCA).