With only about 250 members, the Hupacasath First Nation has turned itself into an economic and political powerhouse in Alberni Valley. Quite literally a powerhouse.
In November 2004, the Hupacasath broke ground on the construction of a $13.7-million micro-hydro power project at China Creek located about five kilometres from Port Alberni. Ecotrust Capital provided a $250,000 loan to the innovative and historic enterprise, as part of a $8.5 debt syndicate arranged by VanCity Capital.
“One of the unique things about China Creek is that there has never been a green energy project like this led by a First Nation,” says Judith Sayers, Chief of the Hupacasath and Presi dent of Upnit Power Corporation. “We are 72.5 percent owners.” Other First Nations in B.C. are only minor shareholders in large energy projects, she explains.
Upnit owns and operates the run-of-the-river hydro project. The City of Port Alberni, Ucluelet First Nation and Synex Energy control minority shares. Upnit, in the local Nuu-chah-nulth dialect, means “calm place,” a native moniker for China Creek.
The micro-hydro powerhouse will produce about 6.5 megawatts of electricity, enough to light up about 6,000 homes during peak periods. It is considered green energy because hydroelectricity is renewable and because water diversion for the powerhouse will have no impact on salmon habitat since it is being constructed above an insurmountable waterfall. By supplanting fossil fuels as a source of energy, the China Creek power project reduces green house gas emissions by 31 kilotonnes each year or the equivalent of taking 8,000 cars off the road.
The project started five years ago. “BC Hydro wanted a natural gas generation plant here and we had many concerns about its impact on human health,” explains Sayers. Her nation worried about air pollution and other environmental effects.
“It was too easy to just say ‘no,' “Sayers reflects. “What were we doing for a solution? What were we offering BC Hydro in return? We knew we needed power on Vancouver Island. We all use power in our lives and homes.”
She also knew that given the Hupacasath's opposition people in Port Alberni would expect high environmental standards from them. She had to ensure that her First Nation didn't do anything in their own developments that they had spoken out against in the past.
So with a grant from the provincial Environmental Assessment Office, the Hupacasath contracted Darren Willis, a local consultant later hired by Ecotrust Capital , to complete a study on alternative energy. The Hupacasath then teamed up with the Pembina Institute to look at these alternatives and in partnership with BC Hydro erected a wind tower whose yearlong testing proved disappointing.
Next came a hydrological survey of their territory. They investigated the 10 best sites for micro-hydro. China Creek won hands-down because the City of Port Alberni had a decade of data on its water flow, and its construction and operation would have minimal effects on the environment.
The Hupacasath signed a long-term Electricity Purchase Agreement with BC Hydro, which is increasing its energy production on Vancouver Island. To build the power generator, the band raised about $4.5 million in equity from First Nations, government and private sector sources. The rest came from the VanCity Capital debt syndicate and a $925,000 loan from Western Economic Diversification.
The environmental innovation and business acumen of the Hupacasath is quickly changing attitudes about Aboriginal people. “As First Nations, we've always wanted to be a part of economic development, but we've been so held back economically,” Sayers says. “Our whole issue now is promoting pride and our culture.”
By lighting homes and businesses with green energy, it seems, the Hupacasath hope to enlighten attitudes in the Alberni Valley, too.