The largest wind farm in Canada is now generating power on the shores of Georgian Bay south of Sudbury — and, in the future, what could be just as big is a new model for working with First Nations.
Henvey Inlet wind farm 1:11
Inside the front door of the wind turbine is not much bigger than an elevator, but then you look up 130 metres to the top.
The 87 wind turbines that have been turning since early September in Henvey Inlet are the largest in North America.
“They’re absolutely huge. Two football fields basically,” says Frank Davis, the country head for Pattern Energy in Canada.
The potential power output of this wind farm is also huge. It’s annual capacity is around 300 megawatts, enough electricity for about 100,000 homes.
But the biggest impact could be for Henvey Inlet First Nation, which owns half of the project.
Davis says that’s a “unique” situation in the wind power industry, where companies typically give a First Nation an annual payment for setting up on their territory, or in some cases a small ownership share.
In Henvey Inlet, the community and the company will split the decision-making and the profits 50-50.
“It’s fair to say this will be a very significant, life-changing type reality for the First Nation as we begin to see revenue come out of this project,” says Davis.
Henvey Inlet band councillor Pat Brennan says the community first started looking into wind power 10 years ago, when it was identified as one of the few economic development opportunities for the small community of 160 about an hour’s drive south of Sudbury.
He says it took years for the community to develop its own land code and match it with provincial and federal environmental regulations that would allow a wind farm to set up shop on their land along Georgian Bay.
“The hurdles were monumental,” says Brennan, whose been on council for seven years.
“We knew if we were going to proceed, we basically had to design our own environmental stewardship regime.”
Brennan says Henvey Inlet then insisted on a 50-50 partnership with the wind companies that came courting and eventually tied the knot with U.S.-based Pattern Energy.
He says every time the band council meets, they talk about how there is a 20 per cent shortfall in funding from the federal government to pay for everything from education to cultural programs.
On top of addressing some immediate needs in the community, Brennan says some of the revenue from the wind farm will be put into a trust that future Henvey Inlet citizens can access for post-secondary education and other needs.
“The community is excited knowing life will change,” says Brennan.
The First Nation was evacuated last year for the massive Parry Sound 33 forest fire that started during the construction of the wind farm.
Brennan says that raised concerns in the community, but less about their safety and more about the impact the fire will have on the environment.
“It was obviously quite concerning at that point in time, because anything that happens with lands or species of habitat is obviously a great concern,” he says, adding that the First Nation is beginning to study what long-term affects the forest fire might have.
Asked if the evacuation and the fire tainted some of the excitement about the project, Davis says his company works hard to build relationships with the communities where they work.
“We focus a lot on engagement with our neighbours, that engagement doesn’t stop after we construct and start operating,” he says.
The Henvey Inlet wind farm is expected to create about 40 permanent jobs and provide about $1 million in funding over 20 years to the nearby municipalities of Carling, McDougall, Seguin and the Township of the Archipelago.
The project has an agreement to provide power to the provincial grid for 20 years and right now, the plan is that the turbines would come down after that.