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The challenges and success of Gull Bay’s microgrid project

May 20, 2021 | By Anthony Capkun

“KZA plans to share what we have learned and experienced with this project to other Indigenous and remote communities across Canada.”

May 20, 2021 – Gull Bay First Nation (Kiashke Zaaging Anishinaabek [KZA]) is an Ojibwe community located in Northwestern Ontario, on the western shoreline of Lake Nipigon, two hours north of Thunder Bay. The remote, non-grid-connected community has been dependent on diesel fuel since the 1960s, when diesel gensets were brought in for power generation.

Today, however, the KZA community is home to Canada’s first fully integrated remote renewable energy storage microgrid, which significantly curtails the community’s reliance on diesel.

To learn more about this interesting project, I attended a webinar hosted by Stantec, which shared perspectives from various project participants about the unique challenges posed by the remote location, cold temperatures, existing geotechnical subsurface conditions and technology integration to construct this specialty project.

Setting the stage


KZA Mashkawiziiwin Energy’s AJ Esquega served as project manager, and set the stage for webinar attendees. He explained the community had past grievances with Ontario Power Generation (OPG), stemming primarily from dams, but reconciliation occurred between the two several years ago.

The community expressed a desire to get off diesel (“We’re too far from the grid for transmission lines,” said Esquega) and OPG put forward the idea of a solar plant.

Stantec’s Peter Bright, sub-sector leader, Solar Power, explained they did a lot of research before settling on solar PV. Windpower was on the table in the early days but, after modelling and comparing solar resources in the region versus wind, solar came out as delivering bigger bang for the buck.

The solar PV and energy storage project had the support of the chief and council, and was driven and supported by the community, said Esquega, which was engaged from the outset and over the course of the project through meetings, contests, newsletters and energy fairs.

KZA members were also employed in project management, construction and operations.

Esquega admits that not everything on the project went perfectly, “but we want to share what we learned”.

An idea becomes a project

Shawn Bremner, senior business development engineer with OPG, explained Gull Bay is one of four remote communities that Ontario’s Independent Electricity System Operator’s draft Remote Community Connection Plan does not recommend connecting to the grid.

(Hence, the three diesel gensets that serve the community, which are operated by Hydro One Remote Communities.)

Government funding (both provincial and federal) became available to help Gull Bay with its diesel reliance, and this propelled the microgrid project into existence.

Hydro One RC continues to operate those three diesel gensets, and the new solar and energy storage system became “a fourth generator”, running through the existing diesel infrastructure, Bremner explained.

“We wanted off-the-shelf solutions for the 20-year life of this project,” he said, adding, “The microgrid controller is a key piece of the puzzle.”

Now that the system is up and running, here’s how it works on a typical day…

The diesel gensets shut down from 12:20 pm until 10:30 pm. During this time, the KZA community is totally on renewable power.

“We’ve reduced diesel consumption by 30%,” said Bremner, explaining, “With storage, we’d never be able to shut down the diesels, and solar PV penetration would be reduced to about 10%, rather than the 30% we see now.”

This project was recognized with an award from the Canadian Electricity Association, added Bremner, particularly for the exemplary collaboration between project proponents.

Contractor nuances and challenges

Bright emphasized the project’s remote location itself was a challenge, including extreme weather conditions (snow, wind, cold) in the region.

This sentiment was echoed by Kevin Ritzmann, senior director, Alltrade Industrial Contractors Inc. The remoteness of the project means you have limited communications, your vendors are very far away from you, and temperatures can go down to -45 C.

As the electrical contractor, Alltrade engaged in detailed pre-planning, performed as much offsite prefab as possible, and leveraged satellite internet and seasonal lodgings for its team.

There were a few problematic site-specific conditions, too.

The location’s spring thaw could cause problems for the microgrid, so sediment and erosion control was crucially important, plus the site sits on a high water table. Bright said they performed a lot of soil testing and, as a result, shifted the project site some 20 metres to the south to take advantage of stronger soil.

Due to the remoteness of the location, they wanted to avoid using concrete (“hard to get there,” Bright said) and, instead, used helical piles. Ritzmann added that sleeves were added to the helical foundations to mitigate frost heave.

On the electrical front, Bright said grounding was an issue. The solution was to employ a floating neutral; the transformer is energized all the time to maintain system grounding.

Ritzmann said the biggest challenge, however, was integrating all the disparate systems. Bright agreed, saying “there is an art” to tweaking battery charging for optimal effect.

Some of the equipment selected for the project includes:

• Polar fixed-tilt racking for the solar panels
• Fronius Symo string inverters
• Canadian Solar 365W monofacial modules
• ABB MGC600 microgrid controller

The battery energy storage system (BESS) is self-contained, and consists of Samsung lithium-ion battery modules.

Lessons learned

All project participants (and webinar panelists) expressed a desire for others to learn from this project.

Ritzmann pointed to a few “critical success factors” that he believes helped make the project successful:

• Jointly develop a Community Benefit Plan
• Engage early with the community, chief and council
• Host a local job fair
• Make safety requirements paramount
• Have open and timely communication with all stakeholders

For his part, Esquega said “KZA plans to share what we have learned and experienced with this project to other Indigenous and remote communities across Canada”.

I found this webinar very informative, and I highly encourage you to watch the recording. Kudos to the panelists on a successful project, and thank you for sharing your experiences.

— Anthony Capkun, editor, acapkun@ebmag.com .

This feature—plus more great content—also appears in the December 2021 edition of Electrical Business Magazine. Even more back issues are located in our Digital Archive.

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