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Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation's solar farm now generating electricity

Friday, May 14th 2021, 4:10 pm - Diesel generators will be shut off for this first time in 50 years this summer

There will be something noticeably different in Old Crow, Yukon, in a few months. The hum of diesel engines will be gone. For the first time in 50 years there will be silence.

Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation's solar farm is now generating electricity. In July, the array will be fully operational, capable of meeting the community's needs, to the degree diesel generators — some of which date back to the 1970s — will be powered down on sunny days.

Leaders with the First Nation say the farm will displace 190,000 litres of diesel fuel every year, or 750 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions. That represents a roughly 25 per cent annual reduction in diesel fuel use.

"That silence speaks very loudly," said Vuntut Gwitchin Chief Dana Tizya-Tramm. "I think this is a really powerful image because through this project is the technological realization of our community and our journey back to the land."

CBC Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation turned on its solar farm this week. (Caleb Charlie) Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation turned on its solar farm this week. (Caleb Charlie)

To Brandon Kyikavichik, the First Nation's heritage interpreter, the solar farm shows that Vuntut Gwitchin is committed to pivoting away from a reliance on fossil fuels, and that renewable energy projects are possible even in remote, fly-in communities.

"The symbolism in shutting down those generators will be, we're becoming more sustainable and we're becoming more self-sufficient like our ancestors were," Kyikavichik said.

"The elders always say once you get to a certain age that's when you have to start working towards leaving a foundation for the next generation. This is a process that's been going on for thousands of years. We need to carry it on."

CBC Dana Tizya-Tramm, chief of the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation Dana Tizya-Tramm, chief of the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation, says the solar farm is 'only the first step in our community.' (Mike Rudyk/CBC)

Jay Massie, ATCO Electric's vice-president of northern development and Indigenous relations, said emissions linked to transporting diesel fuel will also decrease.

ATCO has a purchase agreement with Vuntut Gwitchin.

"A lot of diesel fuel will no longer have to be trucked up the highway all the way to the Dempster and flown into Old Crow," Massie said. "It just removes all that risk of moving all that fuel.

"With them putting this project together really did align with what we want to do, which is reduce our footprint on the environment, for sure."

SOLAR FARM GROUNDED IN COMMUNITY EMPOWERMENT

The solar project was started with the youth in mind, with good reason, Tizya-Tramm said.

"Our youth are going to inherit decisions we haven't even contemplated yet, so we are also trying to empower the youth into leadership roles," he said. "They are one of our greatest resources in stemming global climate change.

"The solar farm is a realization of that."

The solar project was started with the youth in mind, with good reason, Tizya-Tramm said.

"Our youth are going to inherit decisions we haven't even contemplated yet, so we are also trying to empower the youth into leadership roles," he said. "They are one of our greatest resources in stemming global climate change."

"The solar farm is a realization of that."

There will also be more money coming into the community because of the solar farm, Tizya-Tramm said.

The purchase agreement with ATCO Electric, formally known as the independent power production policy, allows individuals, businesses and, in this case, governments to sell banked electricity to the utility. More money will help subsidize other renewable energy projects, Tizya-Tramm said.

"This is only the first step in our community, and I'm fully confident in our government and in our people and our responsibility to honour those future generations," he said.

This article, written by Julien Gignac, was originally published for CBC News.

Thumbnail credit: Rapeepong Puttakumwong. Moment. Getty Images

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