A roadmap to boost Indigenous participation in Canada’s zero-emission funding programs
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Jun 22, 2023
Mehanaz Yakub

If Canada wants an equitable transition to a cleaner future with Indigenous peoples, some changes are needed in the funding programs that help communities adopt ZEV technology

As Canada strives to accelerate the adoption of zero-emission transportation and clean energy opportunities, ensuring the inclusion and participation of Indigenous communities and businesses is essential. Photo: Indigenous Clean Energy

If Canada wants an equitable transition to a cleaner future with Indigenous peoples, some changes are needed in the funding programs that help communities adopt ZEV and clean technology

As Canada strives to accelerate the adoption of zero-emission transportation and clean energy opportunities, ensuring the inclusion and participation of Indigenous communities and businesses is essential.

However, a recent news report based on findings from an access-to-information (ATI) request revealed that only a low number of Indigenous organizations are participating in Natural Resources Canada’s Clean Fuels Fund (CFF).

This finding raises particular questions given that the $1.5-billion CFF program, which is designed to expand the use of clean fuels like hydrogen, renewable diesel, natural gas and biofuels, includes $250 million specifically reserved for Indigenous-led projects.

It also prompts concerns about whether other federal zero-emission transportation and clean energy funding programs — such as the Clean Energy for Rural and Remote Communities program (CERRC), the Smart Renewables and Electrification Pathways program (SREPs) and the Zero Emission Vehicle Infrastructure Program (ZEVIP) — are experiencing the same low levels of Indigenous participation.

NRCan confirmation

To find out more, Electric Autonomy asked NRCan for comment on both of these matters, starting with the ATI report on the CFF program, which was obtained and reported on by the National Observer.

In an email reply, an NRC spokesperson confirmed that “the number of applications received for the CFF was lower than anticipated.”

Significantly, the spokesperson also revealed that the low uptake is prompting a reevaluation of its approach with the CFF.

“The program intends to further engage with rights-holders and Indigenous businesses to better understand what barriers may have prevented applicants from applying,” says the spokesperson. “Through this engagement, the program anticipates having a better understanding of how and whether a redesign of the program criteria would make it more accessible to potential applicants.”

Given that the outcome of that engagement won’t be known for some time, Electric Autonomy also contacted Indigenous Clean Energy (ICE), an Ottawa-based not-for-profit organization that promotes Indigenous inclusion in Canada’s energy futures economy.

Ian Scholten, director of ICE’s Charge Up program, which helps deliver NRCan’s ZEVIP funding to Indigenous communities and businesses, responded with his thoughts in an interview on how the CFF program could adapt to become more useful and inclusive and whether the same issue exists with other federal ZEV and clean energy funding programs.

Importance of capacity building

There are currently just four Indigenous CFF applications completed and under assessment by NRCan.

Fortunately, Scholten says, this isn’t necessarily the norm.

“From the programs that we’ve either applied to ourselves or been connected to, my senses that other clean energy programs are relatively oversubscribed and I think [CFF] might be a bit more of a [outlier],” he says.

A potential reason behind the low Indigenous uptake of CFF is that clean fuels are emerging sectors that require a learning curve for Indigenous businesses and communities to overcome, he says.

As part of its mandate, ICE focuses on building capacity and addressing questions and concerns while offering various support resources to assist Indigenous communities and groups across Canada in developing clean energy strategies.

“If you’re an Indigenous community who’s got a million and one things on your plate, it’s really hard to figure out and say, ‘Here’s this hydrogen thing that I’m going to fully learn how it works so that we can access and be ready for it,'” explains Scholten.

Scholten emphasizes the need for building capacity within Indigenous communities to effectively pursue clean energy opportunities.

Recognizing the need for more detailed resources related to hydrogen, biofuels and other clean fuels, Scholten says that ICE is working on providing more details and resources that can help communities take advantage of programs like the CFF.

Reducing barriers to access

The ATI request also revealed that several applications under CFF failed to meet the eligibility requirement of 50 per cent Indigenous ownership.

In response, NRCan says it is currently conducting an analysis of the CFF’s mandatory and merit criteria, including the 50 per cent Indigenous ownership requirement. It will finalize program redesign recommendations over the summer, the department tells Electric Autonomy.

An additional way federal programs can also facilitate access to funding for Indigenous communities is by improving the program structure.

Scholten suggests implementing different layers of programming, such as a tiered approach. This would provide an easier entry point for newcomers to the sector, allowing communities to conduct research, build capacity, and explore project possibilities. Once the initial groundwork is done, communities can progress to accessing additional funding for their projects.

“For a lot of projects that early stage work is where there is the most amount of risk of any project. At that point you’re just searching to see if this can even work, says Scholten.

“Funding structures where the government is playing that role to be the first in the door to help bridge that gap, I think, is a really effective way to manage it.”

Other clean energy programs

Scholten’s view that the low Indigenous engagement with the Clean Fuels Fund is an outlier is supported by information from NRCan. For example, according to the spokesperson, CERRC has successfully provided funding for more than 120 projects across the country.

The goal of the CERRC program is to fund projects that contribute to the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions in Indigenous, rural and remote communities. It also fosters community capacity-building for active involvement in the clean energy transition.

Meanwhile, SREPs focuses on smart renewable energy and electrical grid modernization projects, with the aim to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel-generated electricity.

“Understanding that First Nations, Inuit, and Métis partners experience unique barriers to participating in the energy transition, SREPs aims to enable and encourage their participation by providing greater funding percentages, as well as supporting smaller-sized projects,” says the NRCan spokesperson. “Overall, the program has been successful in encouraging Indigenous participation.”

The fund has supported Indigenous-led projects such as the Awasis Solar Project on Cowessess First Nation’s land in Saskatchewan and the Métis Crossing Solar Project in Alberta.

Funding charging infrastructure

Along with clean energy programs, NRCan has also supported 29 ZEV charging infrastructure projects on Indigenous land through ZEVIP, says the department.

And, in March, NRCan launched two calls for proposals to support Indigenous-led EV charging projects.

The first is a pilot program to support Indigenous-led projects focused on raising awareness and providing education regarding zero-emission vehicles. The second program focuses on infrastructure development, specifically targeting Indigenous EV infrastructure projects.

“NRCan is proactively engaging with internal and external Indigenous partners, through its awareness pilot project, via outreach activities and meetings to generate interest, to spread awareness of funding opportunities and to explain the application process,” says NRCan’s spokesperson.

Earlier this month, as well, the Charge Up program, which was launched last March with initial funding of $275,000, received a $1.6-million cash infusion from ZEVIP.

Scholten says ICE approached NRCan for an expansion of the program due to increased interest by applicants.

“When we set out last year, it was originally the funding we had targeted was mostly Level 2s thinking for a lot of communities this would be the first kick-at-the-can of doing charging infrastructure,” says Scholten. “But the applicants that reached out to us were keen to just go straight to [DC fast chargers], which is really positive. I think they’re looking at it from that perspective of long term.”

With the additional funding, all First Nation, Inuit and Métis communities and non-profit or for-profit businesses will now be able to recoup up to 75 per cent of the cost for the purchase and installation of EV charging stations, up to a maximum of $99,999 per project (unless it is a 100 kW+ charger).

This is an increase from previous benefits of 50 per cent or up to $75,000 per project.

The timelines for applications and project completion dates for participants have also been extended to October 2024 from March 2023.

“Being able to offer that extended timeline is super helpful,” says Scholten.

“One of the barriers that we were running into was when we first started [was] there were a few people who applied but we’re uncertain if they’d be able to meet that timeline — especially when you’re doing the bigger, faster chargers. It just takes longer to coordinate with utilities and to coordinate with all the infrastructure that needs to come in.”

Deployments underway

To date, there are two projects under construction through ICE’s Charge Up program. And several more projects are in the pipeline in Ontario, Prince Edward Island, Manitoba and British Columbia.

Some of the applicants include gas stations and Indigenous-owned tourism centres. Initially, ICE focused primarily on rural and remote communities. However, the scope of applicants has expanded, allowing for a broader range of groups to apply and participate.

“There’s a lot of diversity in the type of applications and the type of interests that we’re getting as well. Some groups are coming in with considering something that might end up looking like a three-phase project, with maybe a little bit of light-duty fleet, a little bit of public and a little bit of workplace,” says Jessica Tait, Charge Up’s program coordinator, in a separate interview with Electric Autonomy.

“So there’s actually an opportunity for applicants — as long as they’re applying for distinct projects — to have multiple applications at different timeframes.”

This is a benefit, adds Tait, since it gives an opportunity for applicants to look into different projects and make them more accessible, instead of trying to decide all at once which charging project to prioritize.

“One of the things that I hope we can do now that we have the expanded funding is a really increase our promotions and be more targeted outreach to say, ‘We know you’re interested. Can you partner with a neighbouring community and we can fund a couple of projects so that we’re actually building up a network,'” says Scholten.

“It’s really interesting to see where communities are coming from to explore this and get networks.”

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