First Power- Making Energy Independent Communities

Donna Morton. Co-Founder of First Power

According to Laurence C. Smith, senior professor of Geography at the University of California and author of The World in 2050: Four Forces Shaping Civilizations as it stands right now solar power fulfills less than 1% of the world’s electricity usage, which must change if we are to achieve a de-carbonized economy to mitigate the most pressing impacts of climate change.

As chance would have it, Donna Morton an eco-entrepreneur and a social justice advocate who lives on Vancouver Island has taken up his call for  action by co-founding First Power in 2006/07 with her partner Joe Sweatez; this innovative alternative energy company works to empower indigenous communities primarily across British Columbia to become energy independent, through use of a hybrid business model: “ we are a social venture but we are sort of a twin organization, a Canadian charity and a for-profit venture which gives us a lot more flexibility on putting projects together and on financing.”  It becomes evident very quickly that Ms. Morton is an environmentalist for all the right reasons- she is in it to help people especially those in first nations communities.

She can barely contain her enthusiasm as she begins to explain the seismic investment of time and energy that is being funneled from a multitude of different non-governmental sources into actualizing their marquee project, a collaborative plan of action with the indigenous government that oversees most administrative matters within the Hesquiaht nation. A large portion of their territory consists of a small and isolated village within the Clayqout Sound archipelago, approximately a two hours boat trip from the west-coast surfing mecca of Tofino, British Columbia. Diesel generators, propane and heating oil exclusively power the Hesquiaht Village at present, but that is set to change under the alternative power arrangement that First Power and the community band council are currently negotiating and implementing.

The Hesquiaht planned alternative power sources. If you have been to Clayoquot Sound you know that solar power, is not a viable energy source. This region is a rainforest and shrouded in mist, rain and clouds almost year long

In a series of collaborative discussions with representatives appointed from the band council, actions are being taken by First Power to phase out all the diesel generators over the next four years. In place of the diesel power generators the community will be retrofitted with a: waste-wood biomass plant, wind turbines as well as a micro-hydro electric turbine to generate and satisfy the energy independence needs of the community. To say Morton’s dream for the community is ambitious doesn’t due justice to the sweeping vision she has for transforming not just the way homes are heated but also the way jobs are created and lives are enriched within this small town.

The project will be the first of its kind anywhere in Canada, a truly autonomous closed loop micro-energy grid.  The list of project partners is daunting: Chief and Council of the Hesquiaht Nation, The Hereditary Chiefs of the Hesquiaht Nation, First Power, BC Hydro, Power Tech Labs, Energy Alternatives as well as DNA Architectural and Engineering Firm.  Arguably the most inspirational aspect of the project is the way it will create highly specialized and marketable skills for members of the community according to Morton. “There is capacity assessments and training, job development, entrepreneurship development, business development. There will be businesses built in energy and in wood, so turning some of the waste woods into masks, carvings and furniture and there will be food-based businesses. We are looking at a salt and a salt alternative business and all of these products will be created with a label on them that say, ‘this product was created with 100% renewable energy’. So it will sell at a premium.”

A cultural relevant totem wind tower that will be placed next to the community school.

As the oral tradition has been fundamentally important to first nations communities for generations, this is the way members of the Hesquiaht community will receive their trades and independent business development training from their peers and First Power consultants.  With such a massive undertaken ahead, it is easy to assume that First Power is a large organization but this is not so. Presently the company employs a full time staff of about three in addition to about 10 part-time consultants.

When it comes to proven experience within social business ventures, there are few people in the alternative energy community more qualified to offer their services to the Hesquiaht Nation than Donna and her partner Joe Thwaites a solar energy company pioneer; who has been in the business for over twenty years.  A quick Google search yields an impressive return on both Donna and Joe.

Among the many directorships and accolades that she has held in the past; few are as prestigious as the Ashoka Fellowship that she received for her work empowering women as an Executive Director with the Centre for Integral Economics. This Victoria based charity works is directed at rethinking capitalism, according to the about section of the website in a manner that: “reconciles economic prosperity, social justice and environmental integrity.” In comparison, while Donna brings the policy and political insight to the organization what her partner Joe brings to their synergistic business relationship is the prerequisite technological know how.

As the Chief Technology Officer and co-founder for First Power he has been the recipient of many accolades and awards from his peers in the Canadian Solar Industries Association  (CanSIA), of which he is co-incidently holds a directorship with. In addition to his full-time position with First Power, his track record as a tenured professor at Vancouver Island University exemplifies his commitment to investing time and energy, into nurturing a new generation of engineering students, who will follow in his footsteps as solar energy entrepreneurs. In addition to working with the Hesquiaht Nation, Thwaites has also acted as a consultant for Vancity Credit Union and the Vancouver International Airtport as well.

A few months ago Attawapiskat, a small isolated Northern Ontario indigenous community made national headlines in the Globe and Mail as a soul-crushing place, with little opportunity for career exploration and advancement in either the trades or in a white collar profession. Shockingly according to the story, “ 90 people [where discovered to be living] in an old construction trailer with no smoke alarms and doors that are padlocked at night to keep out vandals.”   By design this document, does more to constrain aboriginal identity, as opposed to contemporizing it and empowering aboriginal people as the First Power Project seeks to accomplish. From Morton’s perspective, governments by design with their overlapping hydra-like departments and seemingly un-exhaustive supply of red tape will always be reactive and not proactive when it comes to problem solving social justice issues.

So because government is poorly prepared to intervene, it therefore because the responsibility of civil society organizations like First Power to effectively fill in the gaps, that are not being addressed by the federal government at present. She arrived at this epiphany in 2006-2007 after reading Paul Hawkins’ treatise Blessed Unrest, which chronicles the emergence of modern civil society movements.

According to Hawkin, a patron saint of environmentalism to some, he first became aware of the self-selecting nature of these intersecting environmental and social justice organizations at the various conventions, in which he gave presentations or keynote addresses to.  It wasn’t until his closet- began bursting at the seams, with business cards that he had collected over the years from eager and inquisitive professionals, that he finally reached his eureka moment, deciding to act as a bridge between the various environmental groups that were in attendance at his presentations he came up with the brilliant idea to use his celebrity to channel all this common energy for collective good will and progressive environmental change movement by creating the Wiser Earth site, as a social network site for eco-activists. The biggest take home message for Morton when she read Hawkin’s book was about empowering aboriginal people to re-embrace TEWK [Traditional Ecological Wisdom and Knowledge] and become active land stewards.              “Blessed Unrest was a call for me to step up and do more and to integrate the three big ideas for me, that came out of the book which were: that we need more indigenous knowledge front and centre, we need to end global poverty and we have to tackle climate change and First Power is our effort to do all of those things together.”

According to the Hesquiaht Band Council and their Economic Development department the alternative energy project will be self-sufficient by 2015: “we will own our energy supply, poessess the knowledge to operate it, and use this increased capacity to create long-term, meaningful jobs for our community, and prosperity for our community.”

After talking with Morton I am confident that change is at hand to create economic prosperity for struggling first nations communities within this country. With the Hesquiaht Power project gaining national and international attention and interest, Morton sees an explosive growth happening for her company over the next five years. “I would like to have a sense of how to replicate this across Canada, across the US, across Australia and across New Zealand because we have already had invitations from like nine different countries, including: Indonesia, Thailand, Haiti, Liberia right.”  I can’t be sure but I suspect what has attracted people from around the world to the First Power business model is it’s focus on community development projects as a form of personal and societal empowerment. This is the true impetus behind Morton’s work with the Hesquiaht people, “we are not trying to just make a whole bunch of money- but we are trying to actually empower a whole lot of other people through this vessel to make a living doing some amazing projects that really change the world; that is what we are in business to do.”

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