Photo: David Isaac: A leader in First Nations solar energy

Credit: Thomas Giwusk Isaac-Came

By Gideon Forman, climate change policy analyst at the David Suzuki Foundation.

David Isaac, an Ottawa-born renewable energy developer whose ancestry is Mi'kmaq, tells me the English translation of his company's name, "W Dusk", is "northern lights". The moniker is appropriate.

Isaac has spent the past several years capturing sunlight with the solar power arrays he designs and builds in First Nations communities across British Columbia and Alberta. And just as the aurora borealis is intensely beautiful, Isaac works to ensure his installations are visually arresting. He recently placed 330 solar panels on a school run by the Lower Nicola Indian Band in Merritt, B.C., a three-hour drive from Vancouver. He says the building "really vibrates."

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Last year he created a solar system with the Lubicon Lake Band in their oilsands-affected community of Little Buffalo, Alberta. It features 80 photovoltaic panels on steel poles an impressive eight metres high. "I wanted something inspiring," he says. "If you can beautify drab settings, there are positive outcomes like [mental] health and community success." In 2017, he'll mount a solar system on a museum in the Haida Gwaii community of Skidegate, B.C. The project's battery bank will be housed in a Haida sculpture built of locally sourced cedar. "Solar arrays need to be aesthetically pleasing," he explains. His strategy is wise: Opponents of Ontario wind turbines often criticized the structures for being unsightly.

Attentive to his work's artistic merit, the University of Victoria-trained Isaac — who originally planned to study medicine — is also pragmatic. The Lower Nicola project, B.C.'s largest community solar system, will eventually provide the local school with about half its power. It will reduce the band's electricity bill and, through cost-savings, provide funds for scholarships. Isaac is pleased it took only three weeks to build.

His philosophy is, "The community owns the project." But ownership is not merely financial. Local residents — some of whom are hired to build racking and install panels — often feel a personal connection and pride. "This is the first time in history that First Nations can lead an emerging sector," Isaac says. "Solar arrays are the technological embodiment of the community's values."

Those values include energy independence, fiscal responsibility and environmental protection. The Skidegate project, for example, will significantly lower the community's electricity costs while allowing it to reduce reliance on dirty diesel-powered generation.

Little Buffalo is Isaac's most hopeful project. It's situated in Lubicon territory near a wetland that suffered a 2011 pipeline spill of some 28,000 barrels of crude — "one of the largest oil spills in Alberta history", according to Amnesty International. But the president of W Dusk says the solar array, which powers the local health centre, has "changed the complexion of the community", beautifying it and bringing a measure of optimism. No wonder. The Pembina Institute rates Alberta's solar resources as "among the best" in Canada.

"The oil patch," concludes Isaac, "is becoming the solar patch."

December 14, 2016

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