Solar opens bright path towards ‘economic reconciliation’ for Alberta First Nation

Renewable energy from Cold Lake First Nations will fuel Cenovus oil sands operations and help reduce emissions

By Mario Toneguzzi
Cold Lake First Nations Chief Roger Marten. Photo supplied for Canadian Energy Centre

An Alberta First Nation will harness the sun to power oil sands operations in a new deal that its chief says marks “an innovative path for economic reconciliation.”

The Cold Lake First Nations (CLFN) have long supplied contract services to Cenovus’ nearby oil sands projects. The solar deal, alongside Vancouver-based developer Elemental Energy Inc., expands that work in a new direction Chief Roger Marten says supports sustainable energy development while realizing long-term economic benefits.

“This has come directly from community members who are supportive and passionate about renewable energy,” Marten says.

“We hope this is just the first project as we plan to develop, invest in and construct several projects in the coming years.”

Located about 300 kilometres northeast of Edmonton, CLFN has about 3,000 members, with over 1,300 living on reserve. Their traditional lands are crossed by the 1-million-hectare Cold Lake Air Weapons Range, a training ground for fighter jets from 4 Wing Cold Lake – the busiest fighter base in Canada.

The range also houses oil sands development, including Cenovus’ Foster Creek project, the first commercial project using steam assisted gravity drainage (SAGD) technology.

“Since the creation of the Air Weapons Range in 1952, much of our traditional territory had been lost and re-configured. Naturally, we strive to protect our people, our environment and our way of life through the continuance of education and awareness,” CLFN describes on its community website.

Today, the Nation operates a primary school on reserve, daycare and community health centre. Many members uphold traditional ways of living. Activities such as hunting, fishing, berry picking, collecting medicines and camping on the land are all honoured traditions.

Renewable energy is part of CLFN’s economic development plan and is expected to provide meaningful employment for community members and contracting opportunities for nation businesses. Multiple oil sands projects close by provide the opportunity for CLFN to generate economic benefits while helping reduce the industry’s environmental impacts.

Cenovus was receptive to the solar power deal when approached by CLFN members, Marten says.

Now, Cenovus will be the sole customer of a new 150-megawatt solar project in southern Alberta owned by CLFN and Elemental Energy. Elemental owns two operating solar farms in the province, with 52 megawatts of combined generation capacity.

The new project, enabled by the deal with Cenovus, is expected to start operating and producing electricity in 2023.

“As stewards of the land, our nation fully supports sustainable, renewable energy development respecting environmental, economic, cultural and social contexts, while realizing long-term economic benefits through an ownership stake in the project,” Marten says.

Using solar power is expected to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions intensity of Cenovus oil sands production, which the company decreased by about 30 per cent between 2004 and 2019. Along with partners Canadian Natural Resources, Imperial Oil, MEG Energy and Suncor Energy, Cenovus has the goal to reach net zero GHG emissions by 2050.

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