Cape Breton band turns its fortunes around by harnessing the wind and investing in innovative solar projects
In a stunning transformation, one of Nova Scotia’s most ancient communities is positioning itself as a leader in the province’s green energy sector. The Eskasoni First Nation is located primarily on the shores of the Bras d’Or Lakes in Cape Breton. It is the largest community in the Mi’kmaw Nation, home to more than 4,000 people. The First Nation has its own school board, a community radio station, and hosts the Unama’ki Institute of Natural Re- sources — a non-profit that oversees natural resources and environmental issues on behalf of the First Nations of Unama’ki (Cape Breton Island).
But taking a leadership role in green energy wasn’t an easy transformation. Eskasoni is primarily rural — disconnected from the urban areas that have provided other First Nations such as Membertou and Millbrook with economic opportunities. To succeed in business, Eskasoni had to make the economic opportunities come to it.
Steve Parsons is Eskasoni First Nation’s general manager. “Fifteen years ago, Eskasoni was in debt,” he says. “Now we’re completely debt-free and we have money to invest. We’re creating a microeconomy here, with the focus on creating jobs for the community.”
Eskasoni started with at least two powerful business assets. The first was a strong culture of cooperation — a reliance on community that has sustained the people of Unama’ki for thousands of years.
But it was another aspect of Eskasoni culture — a powerfully ingrained tradition of stewardship over nature — that led the First Nation to pursue green energy projects, says Parsons. “Renewables fit well with Eskasoni’s position as stewards of the land. It was a business model that made sense to us.”
Eskasoni made its first major foray into the world of green energy on Can- ada Day, 2004, when they switched on a 50kW wind turbine located near the band council office — the first net-metered turbine of its size in the province. The energy generated was used to power the band office, with the excess funnelled back into the Nova Scotia power grid.
The wind turbine project did more than provide clean energy to Eskasoni. It became a spark for an industry by providing the First Nation with knowledge and skills that put it ahead of the renewable energy curve. Soon, it was look- ing for more opportunities.
Eskasoni’s culture of cooperation then became the key to success. The First Nation started looking for business partners — experts in the field of green energy that they could learn from and grow with. Along with wind energy, they began developing expertise in solar power.
They also partnered with other First Nations, including the development of a five-turbine wind farm in Truro through a joint venture with Millbrook First Nation.
“We always start with a joint venture,” says Parsons. “Then we train people from the Eskasoni community to work in the industry. That’s how we develop the skills and expertise to pursue more opportunities.
“The goal is to create revenue streams for the band,” he says. “We’re currently training 10 people from the community to be solar panel technicians. We’re also developing the expertise to get into the RFP game.”
Eskasoni Renewables, the Eskasoni-owned company that manages the First Nation’s green energy developments, has a portfolio of projects that includes solar arrays for the Cobequid Housing Authority and a nearly 100,000 kWh solar generating station in the Eskasoni community. Solar energy is trans- forming the community in other ways as well: 60 homes in Eskasoni are currently being fitted with solar panels.
Eskasoni’s green energy expertise is also spilling over to another of the First Nation’s revenue streams —the fishery. Last year, Eskasoni announced joint funding for the construction of a solar power generating system for Eskasoni Cold Logistics.
Eskasoni Cold Logistics is an impressive piece of the First Nation’s business portfolio — a state-of-the-art seafood storage facility located in Sydney. The 79,000-square-foot facility can store up to 2.3 million kilograms of frozen seafood and 113,000 kilograms of live seafood, such as lobster. But that kind of capacity requires large amounts of electricity.
That’s where Eskasoni Renewables comes in. The company will develop and install a 583-kilowatt ground-mounted solar system that will provide green energy to the facility, reducing overall energy demands and lower energy costs. Eskasoni First Nation is one of the investors in the Cold Logistics project, along with the governments of Canada and Nova Scotia.
The facility will serve as a training site for Eskasoni technicians, while money from cost savings will be used to fund services for the Eskasoni community — a crucial piece of the business puzzle, according to Parsons.
“We did a leakage report about 15 years ago,” he says. “We found in those days 85 per cent of the money was leaving Eskasoni. Today we’ve completely turned that around.”
But despite the successes, Eskasoni is just getting started, according to Parsons. “I review two or three business opportunities every couple of weeks,” he says. “We’re open for business.”
Eskasoni Business Resources Eskasoni Renewables provides development, engineering, procurement, construction, and commissioning services for renewable energy and clean technology projects. For more information visit eskasonirenewables.ca MEMSKI Projects Inc. is a strategic partnership between the Eskasoni and Membertou First Nations. For more information visit memski.ca Eskasoni Cold Logistics’ 79,000 sq. ft. facility is centrally located in Sydney, Nova Scotia. For more information visit livestorsydney.com