The real effect of unreliable electric power on quality of life

By Daniel Kitts - Published on April 25, 2016
Pikangikum residents are hopeful about the new school being built, but insufficient energy access is a daily struggle.

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This week, TVO will air a series of episodes of The Agenda recorded at the Waterloo Global Science Initiative's OpenAccess Energy Summit tackling the worldwide problem of energy poverty. The first of those episodes airs tonight at 8:00 p.m. and repeats at 11:00 p.m. It will discuss how to help the approximately 175 aboriginal and northern communities in Canada that are not connected to the electrical grid.

A lack of reliable electricity can have a profound and sometimes surprising impact on daily life. Eric Bombicino, producer of The Agenda’s coverage of the Waterloo summit, recently wrote in detail about how energy poverty devastates Pikangikum First Nation in northwestern Ontario. Bombicino’s article and a study commissioned by Wataynikaneyap (Watay) Power, which wants to connect Pikangikum and roughly 15 other remote aboriginal communities to the electrical grid, show the effects of energy poverty on health, education, the local environment and more.

Health

Pikangikum is powered by old, unreliable diesel generators running at maximum capacity. When the reserve’s main generator broke down earlier this year, the community was forced to deal with timed blackouts for weeks.

With a lack of steady electricity, residents often resort to oil burners and wood stoves for heating and cooking. This affects home air quality, which can lead to both short term and long term health problems.

“There is also an increased risk of fire arising from poorly maintained chimneys and aged equipment,” the Watay Power study notes. In late March, nine members of one family died in a Pikangikum house fire. Ontario Regional Chief Isadore Day blamed “Third World conditions” for the tragedy.

The health and safety risks of unreliable electricity in Pikangikum are compounded by a lack of reliable water. The grand majority of the community’s homes don’t have running water, and the water that is available often has to be boiled to ensure it isn’t contaminated with harmful bacteria. “When there is a power outage, which could last anywhere from five minutes to five hours, they have no stove to boil the water to make it safe,” Sylvain Langlois of Pikangikum’s health authority told Bombicino.

Even trying to improve the water infrastructure is hamstrung by a lack of power. In 2014, a volunteer group installed 10 running-water systems in homes using money from private donations. But plans to install another 10 were scrapped when authorities concluded the local power system couldn’t handle the load of additional water heaters and pumps.

Education

It’s obviously harder to learn if your school day is regularly interrupted by blackouts. But beyond that, the power surges and brownouts that often come with unreliable electricity can damage or significantly reduce the lifetime of computers and other electronic equipment considered an essential part of education today.

The principal of Pikangikum’s only school regularly worries that power outages will prevent it from opening. Electricity problems also mean that sometimes the school’s breakfast program, in a community where food security is a very real issue, can’t be served consistently.

Local environment

As the Watay Power report points out, one litre of leaked fuel oil can contaminate one million litres of drinking water. According to former band council lawyer, Doug Keshen, Pikangikum spent $7 million on diesel in 2015 alone. That’s a lot of fuel to be transported in and stored in the community, and as the Watay report points out, it presents a significant risk: the federal government has identified and documented 2,495 potential contaminated sites on First Nations reserves, approximately 60 per cent of which are caused by fuel leaks.

“In 2011, [the federal government] offered the Mathias Columb Cree Nation in Manitoba a settlement of $17 million in compensation for a diesel fuel leak in the community of Pukatawagan that took place from 1967 to 1985,” the report states. “The soil was contaminated to the point that most of the community’s infrastructure had to be torn down.”

Jobs and infrastructure

a man wearing a jacket that says Eshkotay Whab Power AuthorityIt’s difficult to run a business if the power goes out. It’s even more difficult to start a business if there isn’t enough power to begin with.

The lack of economic opportunities in many remote aboriginal communities is an ongoing issue. But in places such as Pikangikum, where power generation is already at peak capacity, any entrepreneur who needs electricity to operate a new business is out of luck.

The same problem also applies to housing. Pikangikum has 450 houses and needs at least 200 more to address a growing population. “As many as 16 people might share a small home, requiring some families to sleep in shifts,” Bombicino writes. But even if the funding for those 200 homes was available, the current diesel generator system wouldn’t be able to power them, according to Rene Keeper of Pikangikum’s Eshkotay Wahab Power Authority.  

Read more:

How to bring electricity to energy-poor communities

Does the planet need an 'energy miracle'?

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