By Heather Cameron
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
RenuWell and Eagle Spirit Nest Community Association held a Summer Solstice Community Conversation Event on June 21 from 10 to 3 p.m. in Taber as part of National Indigenous Peoples Day.
“The primary purpose of the event was to provide an update to stakeholders about the status of the MD of Taber’s RenuWell pilot project,” Keith Hirsche, Alyssa Bruce from the RenuWell Project team and Jazmine Laroque from Iron & Earth, said. “This transfer of information is required by the Municipal Climate Change Action Centre as part of our funding agreement.”
Back in November 2022, they said, the RenuWell Project team hosted a ribbon-cutting event and project update meeting at the Heritage Inn to celebrate the completion of the construction of two pilot projects located near Taber which repurposed orphan wellsites for small-scale solar installations. Members of Eagle Spirit Nest Community Association and Elder Charlie Fox attended that event and Elder Fox provided a blessing before the meal.
Following the November event, Hirsche, Bruce, and Laroque say, Eagle Spirit Nest Community Association (ESNCA) invited the RenuWell Project team to present about the pilot projects as part of the Association’s National Indigenous Peoples Day event programming on June 21, 2023.
“The purpose of the Summer Solstice Community Conversation about Energy Diversification, they said, was to bring together Indigenous community members and settlers from across southern Alberta to learn about the RenuWell Project and discuss energy diversification opportunities in Treaty 7 territory, including reclamation of abandoned oil wells and decentralized electricity generation, in their respective communities,” Hirsche, Bruce, and Laroque said.
The event was well-received with 57 attendees, and most attending the event in its entirety. Attendees included Indigenous Elders and community members, municipal government leaders, local land owners and Taber community members, RenuWell Project partners and supporters, academics, as well as oil & gas industry, renewable energy and electrical utility sector workers.
An informal site tour of the Barnwell Solar Project, one of two RenuWell Project pilots located near Taber was included in this event, Hirsche, Bruce, and Laroque said. MD of Taber Reeve Merrill Harris, David Westwood, General Manager of St. Mary River Irrigation District, and Keith Hirsche provided brief remarks and answered attendee questions about the project. A shuttle, they said, was provided by the MD of Taber to transport attendees from the Taber Community Centre to the project site.
“The Barnwell Solar project was commissioned on March 27, 2023, and it has been producing electricity since that time,” Hirsche, Bruce, and Laroque said. “So far, the project is exceeding the power and revenue generation that had been predicted at the beginning as part of the project design. Together with the Fincastle solar project, which was also part of the Renuwell Pilot Program, more than more than 600 MWh of electricity has been generated with an estimated savings of about 340 tonnes of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The RenuWell Pilot project is nearing completion, and the two sites will generate ongoing tax revenue for the MD of Taber for the next 30 or 40 years. In addition, the sites will also generate significant revenue for the St Mary River and Raymond Irrigation Districts and lease rental payments for the two landowners. The remaining work for the pilot includes documenting the project performance and transferring information to other municipalities. Beyond the pilot, we are looking at options to commercialize the RenuWell Project as a way to accelerate reclamation of abandoned oil and gas leases and generate electricity where it is needed throughout the municipality.”
Hirsche, Bruce, and Laroque said that following the site visit, attendees returned to the Taber Community Centre where a luncheon catered by the Heritage Inn was hosted by the RenuWell Project partners. Greta Old Shoes from the All Tall People Clan of the Blackfoot Confederation shared a blessing before the meal. During the luncheon, they said, Merrill Harris provided remarks regarding the MD of Taber’s support for the RenuWell Project, followed by a presentation by Keith Hirsche about the current status of the pilots including the power generation and economic performance data. Daryl Bennett from Action Surface Rights shared remarks regarding landowner support for small-scale decentralized energy projects such as RenuWell and Keith wrapped up the presentation with an informal Q&A session.
“Several conversations revolved around issues related to the decline of the oil and gas industry in southern Alberta, the rapid growth of solar energy projects in the area and the need to preserve high quality/irrigated land for agricultural purposes,” Hirsche, Bruce, and Laroque said. “Other comments included the need to consider the long-term impact of our energy projects on the ecosystem and the need to consider how they will affect future generations. The RenuWell Project representing two pilot projects located near Taber, which repurposed orphan well sites for small-scale solar installations was also showcased. “The attendee questions and discussions exhibited a high level of interest in solar energy generation projects including transmission versus distribution-connected projects, project scalability as well as siting and land use considerations,” Hirsche, Bruce, and Laroque said. “This event gave the ability for people to express their opinions, concerns and interest regarding energy related projects. The event help create a sense of unity and collaboration among community member and highlighted the importance of working together to achieve common goals.”
Hirsche, Bruce, and Laroque also said that Iron & Earth team members were onsite at the Taber Community Centre and had set up an interactive booth where attendees could participate in energy-related games, ask questions and collect some take home energy literature and resources.
“Iron & Earth is collaborating with ESNCA to plan future opportunities for conversations about energy in Indigenous communities located in southern Alberta,” Hirsche, Bruce, and Laroque said. “The Taber area is rich with energy resources and its energy needs are unique. Community driven renewable energy projects that consider local needs are integral to meeting growing energy demand while reducing associated environmental impacts. Ongoing dialogue within the community that considers local needs, opportunities, barriers, perceptions and fears is key to diversifying the energy mix. We hope this event inspires continued dialogue and community-driven energy innovation.”
The evening activities for National Indigenous Peoples Day, Hirsche, Bruce, and Laroque said, were hosted by ESNCA in Confederation Park. Keith Hirsche, from RenuWell, and Dara Wawatie-Chabot, from Iron & Earth were invited to provide remarks to the crowd at that point and the evening was also filled with amazing dancers and drumming as well as delicious food.
“The RenuWell Project partners were honored to be invited to present as part of ESNCA’s National Indigenous Peoples Day event,” Hirsche, Bruce, and Laroque said. “It was a great opportunity to provide an update about the status of the MD of Taber’s Renuwell pilot project and help bring together members of Indigenous and settler communities to learn from one another and share about their energy aspirations. Iron & Earth is overwhelmingly thankful for the chance to collaborate with the community and ESNCA’s Indigenous Peoples day event. Being able to interact with community members and learn more about their interests and needs is a valuable experience that we are excited to be a part of. We thank everyone who made this day possible and the amazing community members for participating.”