New program looks to place EVs in Manitoba, Ontario Indigenous communities
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May 29, 2024
Mehanaz Yakub

The MB/ONT Free Ride EV Educational Project will support Indigenous communities with applications for funding

The MB/ONT Free Ride EV Educational Project , launched in July last year, is bridging the knowledge gap by educating Indigenous leaders and community members about the opportunities presented by EVs.

The MB/ONT Free Ride EV Educational Project will support Indigenous communities with applications for funding

Imagine a quiet, remote community suddenly buzzing with the promise of a future with cleaner energy and sustainable transportation. This is soon becoming a reality in Indigenous communities across Manitoba and Northwestern Ontario, thanks to a new initiative called MB/ONT Free Ride EV Educational Project.

The project, founded by Kent Heinrich and Chief Raymond Flett from St. Theresa Point First Nation in Manitoba, aims to empower “First Nations Elders, Chief and Councils, Committee Members, Educators, and all Indigenous peoples about the opportunities presented by electric vehicles and electric vehicle (EV) charging infrastructure,” according to the organization’s online description.

“First Nation communities have a lot on the go and the EV applications, for the most part, aren’t even on their radar,” says Kent Heinrich, partner and project manager for the MB/ONT Free Ride EV Educational Project.

“So we’re out there to share with them the knowledge and assist them as best we can in moving forward in applications.”

Last July, Heinrich applied for and received funding for the project through a new stream of proposals under Natural Resources Canada’s Zero Emission Vehicle Awareness Initiative (ZEVAI), specifically supporting Indigenous-led EV projects.

The project outlines four pillars to guide its mission:

  • Creating a website to serve as a comprehensive resource for Indigenous communities;
  • Developing a curriculum with a strong Indigenous perspective, integrating traditional knowledge and practices with modern EV education;
  • Organizing a conference for Indigenous communities featuring presentations from EV experts, electricians, and First Nation leaders and allowed attendees to interact with different EV models and explore various charging stations; and
  • Helping communities with the application process for grant funding for electric vehicles and studies.

St. Theresa Point solar panel project

Already the MB/ONT Free Ride EV Educational Project is helping one First Nation community with building EV awareness and securing funding to bring sustainable technology to its community that will, eventually, support EVs.

Just over 600 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg is St. Theresa Point First Nation.

St. Theresa Point is a fly-in reserve with no all-season road connections. It has been connected to the Manitoba Hydro grid since the 1990s.

Last year, the community installed a 350-kilowatt solar power system to provide clean power to its three local schools.

St. Theresa secured $1.5 million from the federal government’s Green and Inclusive Community Buildings (GICB) program, which supports green and accessible upgrades to public community buildings, especially in underserved areas.

For Indigenous communities like St. Theresa Point, securing funding requires significant effort and patience, says Chief Flett in a panel discussion at the 2024 EV & Charging Expo.

Along with identifying, applying for and obtaining funding, one of the biggest challenges was to get the equipment to St. Theresa Point.

That required loading it onto trucks and, as soon as the ice road was thick enough to drive on, shipping it up. The panels then had to be stored until work could begin during warmer months, says Flett.

It took about a year before construction could start.

Utilizing EVs in the community

With the solar panels now in place, the next step in the agenda for St. Theresa Point is to set up a battery backup system by adopting EVs.

The community experiences power outages at least once a month, often lasting several hours.

“When the power goes out, the grid-tied solar system won’t work unless it [detects] AC power,” says Heinrich. “What the battery system will do is create a microgrid that will allow the solar panels to operate when the power’s out and recharge that battery. The battery we’re looking at is going to give three days of redundancy.

Additionally, the community is applying for a Lion Electric school bus through the Zero Emission Transit Fund. That vehicle will not only provide student transportation, it will also make St. Theresa’s grid more resilient.

“When we get that bus, that is going to provide another 200-230 kilowatt hours of extra backup power, that we can tie into that system. We’re going from three days redundancy to potentially six,” explains Heinrich.

The community is aiming to electrify its transportation fleet by purchasing a Ford E-Transit and a Ford F-150 Lightning. These specific EVs will contribute to this electrification goal as well as serve as backup power sources for the band office through vehicle-to-grid (V2G) technology.

Finally, St. Theresa Point is also considering purchasing a Lion Class 6 or 8 trucks.

“One thing about St. Teresa Point being rural and remote, is EVs are exceptionally great value for those communities,” says Heinrich. “St. Teresa Point is five miles [eight kilometres] from one end to the other. You can charge an EV up and drive for a month and not have to charge it again, so it really makes sense”

A template for what’s possible

With the successful start of the solar panel project at St. Theresa Point, the community is already serving as an example for others.

“We have the benefit of other First Nations calling me [and asking about] how we did it. I like to share ideas and share the wealth,” says Flett.

Heinrich adds: “We’re hoping this pilot project can be a template for other communities to attain some level of energy self-sufficiency so they’re not dependent on the grid so much.”

Heinrich envisions this success spreading to other northern communities.

“That’s what The Free Ride EV Educational Project is all about — sharing these concepts and ideas with communities and helping them with the application process.”

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