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Two sets of wind turbines on Ramea Island, Nfld., offset about 25 per cent of the island’s diesel consumption.

This is part of a series looking at infrastructure projects designed to create economic opportunities in the North.

When Yukon's Kluane First Nation was given the opportunity to add wind power to its grid, its leaders were enthusiastic. Like most remote Canadian communities, the Burwash Landing-based First Nation long had to rely on harsh-burning diesel generators for electricity.

Wind "fits with everything that a First Nation embodies," Chief Mathieya Alatini says. "Low footprint; always making decisions for future generations; taking care of the earth. …Responsible energy is common sense."

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In 2010, the community entered talks about a wind project with Yukon Electrical Co. Ltd., which owns many of the territory's diesel plants and would own the project as well. The next year, the First Nation proposed owning the project itself, and YECL agreed. Today, the First Nation is gathering funding to support the installation of three 95-kilowatt turbines along Kluane Lake, halfway between Burwash Landing and neighbouring Destruction Bay.

In spite of the environmental and economic advantages that come with such a sustainable power source, wind-energy sources are almost non-existent among Canada's 292 remote communities. Unreachable by major electrical grid, most of these communities are forced to rely on diesel or other fossil fuels, which are expensively carted in by plane, access road, or, in some regions, seasonal ice road. Unless more funding opportunities open up, there's little hope for Canada's most isolated people to adopt sustainable alternatives.

The majority of existing infrastructure supports the burning of fossil fuels – the cost of which is often subsidized by governments and utilities – meaning the status quo is hard to escape for these communities, where capital is beyond scarce.

"We know it works; it can save money, save emissions, and we know it can help a lot of these communities which are struggling up against their limits for growth," says Tim Weis, who is a director of renewable energy and efficiency policy at the Pembina Institute, and who has worked extensively with Canada's remote communities. But, he says, "The existing system is already subsidized, so it's hard to compete without some access to capital."

In the absence of government financing programs, other players have stepped up to inject some cash. The Kluane First Nation received a grant from Bullfrog Power, a Toronto company focused on powering homes and business with renewable energy. Kluane is among the first benefactors of the Bullfrog Builds Renewable Accelerator program, a community-based energy financing stream.

It's a small grant, but it's helping fund a crucial round of data collection at Kluane. "It gets them through a critical point in their history," says Ron Seftel, Bullfrog's senior vice-president of operations. The aim of Bullfrog Builds is not to be the majority funder of an energy project, but to boost a project off the ground and get it noticed. The band is now seeking further funding.

"By putting the Bullfrog name beside their project, when they go to speak to other organizations for support, it really bolsters trust," says Sean Magee, the program's director.

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"We've got grand plans," Chief Alatini says. The community has put solar panels on one municipal building as a pilot project to further reduce their diesel consumption; a biomass plant heats four municipal buildings; and they've drilled a deep geothermal well, having just completed an assessment for heating potential across the community.

"We're not putting all of our eggs in one basket," the chief says.

Still, the wind turbines mark a major turning point for Kluane. Over the past several decades, numerous remote communities in Canada have offset diesel with wind, and almost all of them have failed. The only ones that went on to do well had a champion: "Somebody in the community who was interested in the turbine, who did anything they can to make it work," says J.P. Pinard, the Whitehorse-based lead engineer behind the Kluane wind project.

In Canada, that's apparently happened only once. While some off-grid communities – including Kasabonika Lake First Nation in Northern Ontario – have successfully leveraged wind to offset their diesel usage by a few per cent, the only community where wind has made a significant impact is Ramea Island, on the southern coast of Newfoundland.

It really did take a champion, as Mr. Pinard puts it, to get the project off the ground: Carl Brothers, its lead engineer, had to mortgage his Alberton, PEI, home to finance it.

"I've actually been accused by some of my siblings of being out of my mind," says Mr. Brothers, president of PEI wind engineering company Frontier Power Systems Inc. He originally partnered with Hydro-Quebec's research arm in the 1990s for a project in Northern Quebec, but Hydro-Quebec's funding was eventually cut.

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Rather than giving up all of the effort he'd already put in, Mr. Brothers and his team continued to develop remote wind technology and sought another location that would be interested in wind-diesel.

They wound up on Ramea Island, home to about 600 people. Mr. Brothers had to refinance his home to do it, but after building Canada's first successful wind-diesel project, he has no regrets.

"You just get your teeth into something and don't let go," he says. "If I had done a balanced risk assessment, I probably wouldn't have done it."

His team installed six 65-kilowatt turbines a decade ago, which are still running; the community has since added an additional three 100-kw turbines and a hydrogen processing, storage and generation plant to supplement and store the electricity.

Today, the two sets of turbines offset about 25 per cent of Ramea Island's diesel consumption, which is considered a "medium penetration" system. (High penetration systems, displacing 50 per cent or more, haven't reached Canada's remote communities.)

Seeing the dedication of Mr. Brothers, in Yukon Mr. Pinard has decided to become Kluane's wind champion, to make sure its wind-diesel project works successfully and that the First Nation owns the project, which they hope to complete by 2015.

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"If they can be the project owners, they can generate income that supports their community," Mr. Pinard says. And he hopes the influence will spread beyond just Kluane to other communities, too.

"There needs to be a commitment from the federal government for long-term funding to support these projects."

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