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Natural gas in Clarke Lake reservoir is almost tapped out, but Fort Nelson First Nation hopes heat underground will keep giving carbon-neutral energy for decades to come.

Author of the article:

Derrick Penner

Publishing date:

Nov 29, 2020November 29, 20204 minute read Join the conversation Fort Nelson First Nation Chief Sharleen Gale. For Randy Shore story. [PNG Merlin Archive] Fort Nelson First Nation Chief Sharleen Gale. For Randy Shore story. [PNG Merlin Archive] Photo by handout /PNG

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For decades, the natural gas pumped from the previously rich reservoir at Clarke Lake always came up with a lot of hot, briny water that now Fort Nelson First Nation Chief Sharleen Gale looks on as “a gift from our ancestors.”

A gift of geothermal power to displace the gas-fired electricity the region relies on, of heat to warm greenhouses and boost food security in a place notorious for high-priced groceries, and a source of diversified economic development for people usually tied to boom-and-bust resource industries.

And Gale’s vision is to capitalize on that gift, starting with a $100 million geothermal power plant to demonstrate its potential, provided the First Nation can fill a $6.3 million funding gap by a Dec. 31 deadline to secure significant support from Natural Resources Canada.

The initial proposal is to build a seven-to-15 Megawatt geothermal power plant on top of the almost-tapped-out gas reservoir to start with, which would reduce the carbon impact of B.C. Hydro’s existing gas-fired generation in a region isolated from its main provincial grid.

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Gale said the plant could also serve as carbon-free power for new industry including a wood pellet plant and greenhouses, which would also tap into residual heat to grow food that is typically expensive and hard to access now.

“I think this would revolutionize our Nation to be able to diversify our economy and add another component of prosperity,” Gale said, provided they can secure that funding, through the province’s Clean B.C. communities fund or other sources.

However, the challenges of dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic have also made it difficult for the Nation to meet membership-approval requirements for help through the First Nation Finance Authority.

“Time is just not on our side,” Gale said.

Another challenge is that B.C. Hydro already has an excess of power generation on the Fort Nelson system, which also ties into Northern Alberta, said spokeswoman Mora Scott, and the utility isn’t looking for new sources of electricity from independent power producers generally.

“We’re currently assessing our needs for new energy through our Integrated Resource Plan,” which Scott said is under development, but “the Fort Nelson region is not expected to be highlighted in the plan as it has sufficient resources.”

Gale, however, argued that if the province is serious about its Clean B.C. objectives to hit net-zero greenhouse gas emission targets, B.C. needs more energy sources like Clarke Lake.

She said it’s also a chance to advance an industrial project in a region suffering from an economic downturn, which has Indigenous support.

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Chief Sharleen Gale of the Fort Nelson First Nation at the test station for the Clarke Lake geothermal resource, which the Nation has a vision to turn into carbon-free electricity and heat to power industry. Chief Sharleen Gale of the Fort Nelson First Nation at the test station for the Clarke Lake geothermal resource, which the Nation has a vision to turn into carbon-free electricity and heat to power industry. PNG

“I just feel like it would just really open the door for the province, for people to really see what can be done when governments listen and start acting on the needs of Indigenous communities and start implementing the principles of (the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples),” Gale said.

And while B.C. Hydro has closed all of its acquisition programs for independent power, Gale said the Fort Nelson First Nation has a memorandum of understanding with the Saulteau First Nation to use that group’s independent power rights that it holds through an impact benefits deal over the Site C dam.

Judith Sayers, president of the Nuu-chah-nulth Nations and former board member with Clean Energy B.C., is betting that the Fort Nelson Nation’s project will go forward, regardless of whether it gets a supply deal with B.C. Hydro.

“Any project that can make communities energy sovereign is a good one,” said Sayers, whose own communities on Vancouver Island are experienced in independent power producer development.

A decision by the B.C. Utilities Commission last year determined that First Nations should be able to act as their own power utilities, though not to sell power off reserves.

Sayers said First Nations don’t know how the province will respond to that, but “I think for us, we’re just going to assert our jurisdiction and do it.”

And data from nearly six decades of gas drilling at Clarke Lake make it probably the best understood geothermal resource in Canada, making it a good location for a demonstration project, said John Ebell, project manager for the proposal at the consulting firm, Barkley Project group.

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“It just needed the right proponent,” Ebell said. “In this case, the proponent that came along was the Fort Nelson First Nation.”

B.C. doesn’t have any geothermal power now and previous editions of B.C. Hydro’s resource plans haven’t included much in the way of potential. Previous attempts to tap heat from the earth at Meager Creek north of Pemberton haven’t worked out.

At Clarke Lake, Ebell said they’re ready to drill a production well in 2021 for a final proof-of-concept test, which is needed before the project can be financed. The goal is to start actual construction in 2022.

The estimate of $100 million to build a seven-to-15 megawatt generating plant would be relatively expensive, but the constant base load of geothermal electricity would help mitigate that along with its economic development potential.

“The social and economic components of this project are extensive,” Ebell said.

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