Building business, building communities

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[mk_dropcaps style=”simple-style”]A[/mk_dropcaps] SERVICE DESERT. That’s what some call areas where big service providers have moved out, or aren’t able to make an investment in a community. Many First Nations communities qualify as these service-challenged areas, especially where affordable energy is concerned. As a result, members pay exorbitant amounts of money to heat buildings, with little associated local employment.

[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][vc_column width=”3/4″][mk_image src=”http://www.energy-exchange.net/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/Aki-Energy1.jpg” image_width=”800″ image_height=”600″ crop=”false” lightbox=”true” frame_style=”simple” target=”_self” title=”Shaun Loney, social enterprise developer of Aki Energy, is helping lead his company’s initiative to install geothermal systems in First Nations communities, such as Manitoba’s Peguis First Nation.” desc=”KATE TAYLOR / AKI ENERGY” caption_location=”outside-image” align=”left” margin_bottom=”10″][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column width=”1/1″][vc_column_text disable_pattern=”true” align=”left” margin_bottom=”0″]But one man’s desert is another’s garden. That’s where Shaun Loney, social enterprise developer at Winnipeg-based Aki Energy, is helping sow the seeds of change through the creation of locally owned and operated geothermal projects in First Nations communities. At the same time, Aki Energy is proving that energy projects — when developed with broader goals in mind — do more than keep lights on and buildings warm. They can also increase local employment, build skills and create capacity in communities.

Aki Energy, founded by the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs in partnership with industry and non-government organizations, defines itself as a social enterprise, an organization that strives to improve human and environmental well-being. Among its flagship projects is its partnership with Fisher River Cree Nation. Between 2012 and 2013, Aki worked with the community to install 50 residential geothermal systems, training 15 local tradespeople in the process and earning provincial and international geothermal certifications for Fisher River Builders, a local firm. In 2014, the project was expanded with an additional 75 homes. Fisher River Builders now plans to convert the entire community to geothermal in 10 years.

Peguis First Nation undertook a similar project in 2012 and 2013, with an expansion in 2014. Its locally owned company, Chief Peguis Construction, which has also received international and provincial certification, is now working on residential installations in surrounding communities.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column width=”1/1″][vc_column_text disable_pattern=”true” align=”left” margin_bottom=”0″]Geothermal can be expensive in terms of upfront costs, with the benefits taking years, if not decades, to pay off. Loney says the provincial average for a one-residence installation is about $23,000. However, most of the First Nations’ projects are going in for a fraction of the cost — $15,000 to $16,000 per residence. This is because the infrastructure is installed in multiple residences at once, driving down labour and equipment costs. To facilitate installations, Manitoba Hydro is also financing projects through its Pay As You Save program, which covers upfront costs, then recoups the money through an affordable fee on monthly power bills.

Loney says Aki Energy and partnering First Nations signed a $13-million memorandum of understanding with Manitoba Hydro in March to continue funding projects, with no initial cost to First Nations. “It’s all paid for out of the utility bill reductions,” Loney says.

These incentives, combined with the economics of doing multiple installations and the support of Aki, appear to be working. As evidence, Loney says that currently, the two largest residential geothermal companies in Western Canada are Fisher River Builders and Chief Peguis Construction.

More than that, Aki’s success shows how much can be accomplished, even when dealing with the most difficult conditions. “You look at it and you think, ‘Wow, what a disaster,’ ” Loney says. “But there is always what I call the upside of down.” In addition, renewables create the opportunity for First Nations to become players in the energy industry on terms that align with traditional values. “The geothermal workers and the First Nations we are working with are heroes,” Loney says, adding there is a sense of pride that comes with doing something that benefits the environment and the community. Community members can say, “We did this. This is ours.”[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column width=”1/1″][mk_padding_divider size=”40″][vc_column_text disable_pattern=”true” align=”left” margin_bottom=”0″]by Dawn Calleja and Niki Wilson[/vc_column_text][mk_padding_divider size=”40″][mk_button dimension=”three” size=”large” outline_skin=”dark” outline_active_color=”#fff” outline_hover_color=”#333333″ bg_color=”#13bdd2″ text_color=”light” url=”/resources/energy-exchange-magazine/issue-4/” target=”_self” align=”left” fullwidth=”true” margin_top=”0″ margin_bottom=”15″ animation=”scale-up”]READ MORE STORIES FROM THE SUMMER 2015 ISSUE OF ENERGY EXCHANGE MAGAZINE[/mk_button][/vc_column][/vc_row]

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