On the bald prairie just southeast of Regina, hardly anything reaches above the horizon as far as the eye can see save for one major exception: A single wind turbine.
Owned by Cowessess First Nation, the 800 kilowatt turbine is a symbol of achievement for the community. With the turbine’s completion in 2013, Cowessess became the first Canadian First Nation to construct one. Although not located within the Cowessess reserve, approximately 30 kilometres north of Broadview, it is situated on land the reserve owns near Regina.
Jessica Nixon, Project director of economic development for Cowessess, said plans to build the 73 metre high structure began in 2006, when the Saskatchewan Research Council (SRC) pitched the idea of a wind study. SRC told Cowessess that, if the study was successful, a turbine could be built. After a year of data collecting the go-ahead was given.
Aside from the financial benefit, Nixon explained the Cowessess chose to go ahead with the renewable energy project because of philosophical reasons.
“[Renewable energy] aligns with First Nations traditional beliefs in terms of preserving the land and don’t take more than your need,” Nixon said.
She explained the project hit a significant bump in the road at the start.
“While our dreams for utility scale wind were large, so was the price tag. So we started looking at smaller scale opportunities that we could get involved with.”
The turbine and battery storage unit totaled $6,851,000, but Nixon said Cowessess got the federal government on board, who gave them $2,788,000 in funding through their Clean Energy Fund. She noted it took some time to get things in place.
“It was literally two full years of planning in terms of the economics, getting the funding partners on board, and developing the research platform before we actually got some traction.”
Cowessess councillor Rook Sparvier remembered when the turbine was the talk of the town for a period of time, with members initially hesitant about the development.
“There was a lot of ‘Can we afford this? Can we do it? Is it possible?’” Sparvier said.
He said now that the project is complete, members are less skeptical.
“They’re pretty excited. They’re starting to believe that a First Nation can do this. We’re the first that’s ever tried it.”
Sparvier said Cowessess could also create a smaller version of the project on the reserve itself, which could lower power and energy bills.
This news was exciting to Cowessess elder Grace Aisaican. Originally from the James Smith First Nation, she thinks a project like Cowessess’ could be used there.
“I wish we had that back home because our power bills are going up . . .,” Aisaican said.
She believes the project will help grow the economy and encourage education.
“It sounds very promising to be able to get employment and encourage the young people to continue school.”
The project will also help Cowessess achieve economic independence, which is one of the main goals the reserve is striving toward.
“By the publicity we get, people know that ‘Yeah they’re ready to do business, they have the capability of moving forward on bigger projects,’” Sparvier said.
But their dreams of renewable energy haven’t stopped at the turbine. Shortly after its completion, the reserve announced plans to build a 200 kilowatt solar panel array, which would further enhance Cowessess’ ways to respect the earth and advance economically. That project began this past summer and wrapped up in October.
Cowesses will also reap financial rewards from this project, according to Nixon, because money earned will go toward paying off the turbine and battery unit. After that, the excess revenue will be used to reinvest in more solar.
“Ultimately our goal is to use the revenue we are generating here to reinvest in a utility scale solar system,” Nixon said.
She mentioned they will also invest directly in their community, with revenue eventually going to social programs for members of Cowessess.
Sparvier hopes other First Nations will take on similar projects, but noted this didn’t all happen overnight. He provided a few points other reserves should keep in mind.
“Patience. Negotiating . . . you just got to keep being persistent that things can be done,” he said.
Sparvier says for Cowessess, the future is looking bright thanks to its investment to help Mother Earth.
“It’s to grow with the amount of land we have. There’s nothing stopping us from growing.”