Turtle Island Provides
How the first Canadian geothermal plant will be run by an Indigenous community, and why that should be the case everywhere.
“Like any good guest, Skywoman had not come empty-handed… She scattered [seeds] onto the new ground and carefully tended each one until the world turned from brown to green. Sunlight streamed through the hold from the Skyworld, allowing the seeds to flourish. Wild grasses, flowers, trees, and medicines spread everywhere. And now that the animals, too, had plenty to eat, many came to live with her on Turtle Island.”
— Robin Wall Kimmerer’s adaptation of the Native American origin story in her book, Braiding Sweetgrass
Humans have many traditional stories for how we came to exist, all with a relationship to nature. While some suggest dominance, others promote equity. Indigenous communities continue to remind the rest of the world that humans are equal to—and a part of—nature. The Tu Deh-Kah Geothermal project is an incredible showcase of how technology can bring us into greater equilibrium with the planet, especially when the land’s original caretakers lead it.
Tu Deh-Kah Geothermal, based in Fort Nelson, BC, is the first Indigenous-owned geothermal energy project in Canada. Fort Nelson currently gets all of its energy from fossil fuels. In an effort to create a more sustainable energy grid, Fort Nelson First Nation (FNFN) began the Tu Deh-Kah project at Clarke Lake. FNFN is completely in charge of the project, from running site tests to coming up with how the plant energy can be used. Currently the project has four full time employees, all members of FNFN.
Taylor Behn-Tsakoza, the Research Coordinator & Community Liaison for the Tu Deh-Kah Geothermal project, kindly agreed to interview with Climatescape. Check out the interview below.
Interview with Taylor Behn-Tsakoza
Taylor and Climatescape writer Hannah Bercovici met over Zoom in mid-September 2022 to talk about the Tu Deh-Kah project. The interview covers a variety of topics, from the technology behind the binary cycle power plant to Indigenous sovereignty.
What is the story behind the name Tu Deh-Kah?
I'm so glad you asked. Tu Deh-Kah is a Dene word in the South Slavey dialect. Trying to translate any word from any language to English is challenging. English is a very boring language—not very descriptive.
Depending on which elder you ask in my community, the rough translation of Tu Deh-Kah is hot water in the form of steam or boiling water, something along those lines.
A fellow community member of Fort Nelson First Nation, Kerissa Dickie, named the project and developed the logo. Kerissa gifted us the name.
To be able to gift this project a name holds so much power. When you gift something a name, we believe that you're giving whatever it is a spirit. As we gift this project a name, a spirit, we then have a responsibility to take care of that spirit, to nurture it, to see it throughout its lifespan.
What kind of geothermal plant is Fort Nelson First Nation developing at Clarke Lake?
It will be a binary system. For those that don't know what geothermal is or how geothermal is produced at this magnitude, we're sucking fluid up from under the surface through what is called a production well. In our case, our well is about 2.6 kilometers deep. From over two kilometers down into the earth, we pull that fluid up to surface. Then that fluid heats up another liquid, isobutane.
The isobutane flashes off, meaning it turns to steam. That steam turns a turbine. The spinning of the turbine produces electricity. And then you can sell it to the grid or whatever we decide to do with it.
You cool that steam down again to turn it back to a liquid state, and then the original liquid is pumped back into the ground. The system just keeps repeating itself. You hear clean and renewable energy a lot. What makes it clean and renewable is that it's just repeating itself over and over. It can produce energy 365 24/7.
What is the status of the project?
Our target completion date for this facility to be up and running is 2026. We're finishing our pump test phase, where we need to do 30 days of consecutive pumping to determine how hot the fluid is, how much fluid is coming up, all that technical stuff.
The engineers will get to work once we know how much and hot the fluid is. These factors will tell us how big of a plant we can build. Hopefully construction will start next year or early 2024.
Will Tu Deh-Kah be able to replace fossil fuels in Fort Nelson entirely?
Wind and solar aren't very favorable for the Fort Nelson region because it's not very windy and we're in darkness eight months of the year. With Tu Deh-Kah, we may have the capacity to build a 7–15-MWe facility. You can power about 14,000 homes with that, and there's only 3,000 people in Fort Nelson—more than enough.
We're looking at like commercial uses for the heat too. Like with the Peak Renewables and FNFN partnership, they're looking to build a wood pellet plant. We can harness some of the geothermal energy to power a pellet plant. Geothermal can also provide food security, in terms of greenhouses. We're also looking at building a hydrogen facility.
There are discussions that will have to happen for how Tu Deh-Kah fits into our energy story. We need to talk to the natural gas plant that's outside of Fort Nelson and figure out an EPA with BC Hydro. Lots of things are on the table—nothing is decided. These are all just scenarios because we want to have a good plan even before the power plant is built.
Are there any Cree or Denee stories around Clarke Lake and the geothermal energy there?
That's a good question. I would say, if there is, I don't know any.
Our territory is massive and each family came from a certain part of the territory. I am trying to think of which family would have originated from the Clarke Lake area. There would've been a family who were caretakers of the area that our plant is in. It'd be interesting to hear what stories they have, but from my knowledge, I think it's pretty safe. There's no, I don't know, Big Foots or anything.
Why do you think it's important that First Nations and Indigenous people in general run these projects?
Personally, I think from the start in 1492, Indigenous people should have kept and been able to assert our rights, titles, and inherent responsibility to our land. I know things are changing. You have the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, you have UNDRIP, you have all these things that are re-establishing that right.
Access to our lands is coming. I think I will see it in my lifetime.
I believe that geothermal is unique because it's so new to Canada. And I think Canada is going to do the right thing and give us our land back and allow us to have authority over projects that happen in our territory. Geothermal is going to set the example. From what I know around laws and the Geothermal Resources Act in Canada, there's so much room to involve Indigenous people rights and titles into that act itself.
But just thinking about your question and why do you think we, as FNFN, should be developing this? It's like, why not?
Take Clarke Lake as an example, where we're developing this project. It's not actually on reserve land. So we get into like issues fighting to have authority over our traditional territory. Because you know, our reserve is only 1% of our traditional territory. But I think once UNDRIP is implemented, Canada will have no option. They'll have to allow us to assert our right to our lands.
With Tu Deh-Kah, we're going to be leading the way. I genuinely believe that. I believe we're going to revolutionize the north with this security to energy and food, to be self-sustaining.
What is the role of Indigenous people and geothermal energy in the climate crisis?
Tu Deh-Kah and FNFN are at the heart of Indigenous people taking back what is ours. And being the sole decision makers is really something.
It's so crucial for Indigenous people to be leading the way, especially with geothermal renewables. We know that we're in a climate crisis, we know that the earth is warming up. We know that the need for like this energy transition to happen is now, and now was actually yesterday.
I'm going to COP27 in November and I swear if I hear net zero by 2050, I'm going to yell at someone. When it comes to climate change, if you want to solve this climate crisis we're in, if you want to meet those global targets, then listen up: our people have the answers.
In FNFN, we have this philosophy of seven generations, always thinking about seven generations ahead. That's so crucial to anything, but more so as it comes to living in harmony in this land that we called Turtle Island. It has to be Indigenous driven. It has to be Indigenous land. And it has to be honoring the treaties that were signed with our people. But they just haven't been met.
What kind of job opportunities are available?
We need energy, we need food, but we also need jobs. We already have a training and employment strategy. Having this project owned by our community, we know that's a priority for them. As community liaison, I get a lot of calls about it.
Our goal and our priority are to hire FNFN members, community members, and from the broader region of Fort Nelson. So during the development and construction of the plant, there will be quite a few jobs. I wish I knew the number, a hundred jobs. But as you know, the construction is only going to take a few years. When the facility is actually running, we're only going to need about four full-time employees.
But we like to think beyond just the facility. We have what we call added value projects that would come from the geothermal project. Like if we go ahead and build 10 greenhouses, which is possible, we could have more jobs. And based on our agriculture assessment, we could have 30 to 40 greenhouses. We’ll need a manager, laborers, maintenance people. If we do the fish farming, same thing. We might even build an onsen spa!
It’s dependent on which route we go for the geothermal added value projects specifically. Not many long-term jobs directly, but the added value projects or activities help our goal of employing as many people as we can.
Do you have anything else you think people should know about Tu Deh-Kah Geothermal?
I think that what we're doing at Tu Deh-Kah is really cool. I hope others can see it that way too. This project is important for my nation, for our community—and for the broader national and global communities. It's crazy how many eyes are on this project, the amount of people engaged in making this project what it's going to be.
I hope that people can look at our project as something for which they can also strive—Indigenous-led clean energy projects. I hope we inspire other Indigenous nations to assert their rights to their lands and find a project that builds jobs for their communities. Building a healthier community while battling climate change brings sustainability to their people.
Maybe it's not geothermal, maybe it's another form of energy. But just so they know it’s possible.
Indigenous Groups Working Towards Clean Energy
Here are some examples of Indigenous-led groups promoting clean energy projects throughout North America:
First Nations Major Project Coalition - Based in Canada, the coalition supports First Nations who want to build major projects on their land.
Indigenous Energy Initiative - Based in the United States, IEI is an Indigenous-led team of renewable energy experts that support Native American Tribes in their pursuit of energy sovereignty.
Divest, Invest, Protect is a campaign led by Indigenous women that encourages divestment from fossil fuels and an investment in sustainable renewable energy.
📖 Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer, enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation.
📺 Indigenous knowledge meets science to take on climate change
🎓 Indigenous cosmologies of energy for a sustainable energy future, Nature Energy
🎧 Story-Telling/Story-Listening: Decolonizing Research Podcast Series
Note: While we are releasing this during Native American Heritage Month, Indigenous land sovereignty is important to learn about all year.