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Pumped in Bella Bella

Hundreds of homes in the remote Indigenous community of Bella Bella are long overdue for an upgrade. An efficient and non-polluting new technology may be just the ticket.

Summer has arrived on B.C.’s central coast. The days are long, and the fishing is good. But the Heiltsuk First Nation community members in Bella Bella know that another cold, damp, and very expensive winter is just around the corner.

That’s because most of the 1,050 people who live in this coastal outpost heat their homes with inefficient and often vintage furnaces that burn a combination of wood and stove oil or furnace oil. There are about 340 of these hybrid furnaces around town, some of them up to 25 years old.

Neither the wood nor the oil is an ideal choice for everyone. Firewood demands back-breaking manual work, which is impractical for elders, while every drop of fuel oil arrives by barge, at considerable cost to residents and risk to marine ecosystems that the Heiltsuk have relied on for food for thousands of years.

“We have high incidence of chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder,” reports Dave Jephcott, chief operations officer with the Heiltsuk Economic Development Corporation.

“Bella Bella sits in a natural bowl; so the environmental and health impacts of the dirty fuel being burned are very real—and also the risks of those bulk fuels that need to be transported here.”

A Zero-Pollution Solution

Ecotrust Canada financial strategist Graham Anderson learned about the challenge during conversations with Heiltsuk First Nations leadership. After residents showed him their utility rooms and told him their stories on a follow-up visit, he quickly realized that an opportunity existed to help the Heiltsuk meaningfully improve their quality of life and make their economy stronger and more resilient.

“The key to the success and sustainability of any community, is to return money back to the pockets of our people—and energy is a key way to do that,” says Jephcott.

Just to stay warm through the winter, some residents have been spending up to $2,000 per season, Anderson says. The older systems demanded a lot of maintenance, too. Some are falling apart, and the administration pegs upkeep costs at up to $600 a year for some setups.

And cost and health risks aren’t the only downsides. Each oil-heated home generates about four tonnes of carbon emissions per year, Anderson estimates.

“We knew there were better solutions out there that would allow the Heiltsuk to spend less on energy and keep their money circulating in the local economy,” says Anderson.

Fuel poverty is a global phenomenon in which a given region’s homeowners or occupants are forced to spend an unreasonable amount of their income on heating fuels. It’s exacerbated by high energy costs, low incomes, and homes with poor energy efficiency—like those in Bella Bella.

Anderson learned that in lieu of wood or oil, some community members plug in electric space heaters, which are very inefficient and expensive to run, or avoid using their furnaces altogether. “Some people just keep their houses cold,” he says. This isn’t just uncomfortable, it’s unhealthy. “When you have a house that is not using much heat, when it’s not circulating air through the furnace, you end up creating the conditions that allow mold to grow.”

A Plan Comes Together

Anderson concluded that heat pumps could help Bella Bella residents transition off oil and wood heating. The systems extract heat from outside air and pump it into living spaces through small ducts. The pumps run on electricity, which the community has in abundance, thanks to a nearby hydroelectric power station, and retrofit installations are fairly straightforward.

Working in close collaboration with the Heiltsuk First Nation, Ecotrust Canada is working to put together financing to support a pilot project that could drastically reduce Bella Bella’s fossil fuel reliance. To date, the project has received support from Vancity, Patagonia, the BC Rural Dividend Program, and Northern Development Initiative Trust. Anderson and the team have identified additional funding sources that, if successful, could potentially retrofit all of Bella Bella’s homes.

The opportunity is also being explored to set up a new business within Heiltsuk Economic Development Corporation that will be responsible for the heat pump maintenance, installation, and training.

Once the project shifts to implementation, Anderson expects the Heiltsuk will train and employ their own people to install and maintain the heat exchangers, building capacity, resilience, and self-reliance. This is in keeping with similar Ecotrust Canada projects.

Next up is another community visit this coming month to gather detailed feedback on the project from Heiltsuk elders and community members before moving forward with installations in collaboration with a separate Eco-Home initiative and a broader demonstration of the technology through the fall and the coming winter.

“Everything starts at home — whether that is getting ready for work or taking care of your family,” says Dave Jephcott.

“This project is so much more than just about heat pumps, or energy savings, it is about having a huge impact on our day-to-day lives.”

[Published June 23, 2017]