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Episode #109: 'Intentional Inclusion for a Cleaner Energy Future' with Claire Harris of NB Power and Chief Emily Whetung of Curve Lake Nation [an Energy Central Power Perspectives™ Podcast]

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The ‘Energy Central Power Perspectives™ Podcast’ features conversations with thought leaders in the utility sector. At least twice monthly, we connect with an Energy Central Power Industry...

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As the utility sector continues to work towards meeting future goals and needs, an equally important consideration remains looking back on the impact that the power industry has had on communities and land and ensuring that any injustices or inequities that have resulted can be addressed. Specifically, lands that have been returned to indigenous populations and communities must be protected as new energy infrastructure grows, and including those peoples in the conversation early in the process is a key aspect in doing so.

To highlight what true equity and inclusion looks like from the ground up, today's guests share firsthand experiences on that process as they've taken place in Canada. Specifically, the work that New Brunswick Power is doing to bring small modular reactors and other nuclear technologies to the region has been built on a foundation of engaging and consulting with the Curve Lake Nation. Joining the episode this week, Claire Harris, Senior Advisor of the Advanced Reactor Technology Team at NB Power, and Chief Emily Whetung of the Curve Lake Nation discussion specific examples of why such inclusion has been critical to them and how it can be achieved seamlessly and successfully. They join host Jason Price and producer Matt Chester to share their lessons learned with other utilities and communities that may be facing the same challenges.

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Thanks to the sponsor of this episode of the Energy Central Power Perspectives Podcast: West Monroe.  

 

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TRANSCRIPT

Jason Price: 

Welcome to the Energy Central Power Perspectives Podcast, the show that brings leading minds from the energy industry to discuss the challenges and trends that are transforming and modernizing our energy system. And a quick thank you to West Monroe, our sponsor of today's show. Now let's talk Energy.

I'm Jason Price, Energy Central podcast host and director with West Monroe, coming to you from New York City. And with me as always, from Orlando, Florida, it's Energy Central producer and community manager, Matt Chester.

Matt, today we're joined by a pair of guests who are here to talk about creating a sense of inclusion and belonging in the energy planning process. Can you share a bit about the examples in which this theme tends to be discussed on Energy Central?

 

Matt Chester: 

Of course, Jason. So, this is a topic that it's become more in focus lately, but definitely for way too long it flew under the radar. But these days on Energy Central, we've seen stories touching on everything from environmental justice and projects where they're creating pollution or noise, hiring practices meant to bring in more diverse professionals and leaders into the utilities, and the growth in things like diversity and inclusion groups at energy companies and a general bolstering of those priorities within utility HR departments. As we're going to hear, I think, it's not just about what utilities can do within their walls, but how they can interact with their communities in a way that's equitable, inclusive, and just hearing and responding to all the different voices of the community.

 

Jason Price: 

Thank you for that, Matt. That certainly brings us important context, though I'll note that our discussion today is centered north of the border in our neighboring Canada. So I'm interested in hearing about some of the parallels and differences that come culturally with that. And further, we're looking at inclusion from the nuclear power sector, an area that may often be overlooked in this regard.

First, we're being joined today by Claire Harris, senior advisor of the Advanced Reactor Technology Team at NB Power. Claire is an integral member of the team looking to bring small modular reactors, or SMRs, to her region of Canada as a key tool towards transitioning to clean energy, but ensuring the reliability of the grid. Claire, thanks for joining us today.

 

Claire Harris: 

Thank you. It's great to be here. I'm joining you today from New Brunswick, which is the traditional territory of the Wolastoqiyik, Mi'kmaq and Passamaquoddy People.

 

Jason Price: 

And in our preparatory calls, Claire's passion for doing right for future generations with clean energy was matched only by her ardent enthusiasm for ensuring these transformative energy projects being planned and built today were done with diverse, equity, inclusion and belonging from the very beginning. Specifically, Claire had shared with us how much effort and attention was put to ensure that the indigenous populations of Canada were consulted, considered, and given seats at the table in this process.

And to drive home the importance of this type of inclusion all along the energy development process, Claire has brought with her to this episode her mentor and collaborator, and vice chair of the Indigenous Advisory Council for Canada's SMR Action Plan, Chief Emeritus Emily Whetung. Emily was elected Chief of the Curve Lake First Nation in 2019, a title she held until June of this year. And during that time, she was driven by influencing the critical conversations in clean water and environmental issues affecting the First Nations of Canada. Chief Emily retired in June of 2022. In the course of these events, she became a key ally to the development of nuclear as a cleaner energy option.

Chief Emily, we're thankful that you took time to join us today as well.

 

Emily Whetung: 

Thanks so much for having me. It's my pleasure.

 

Jason Price: 

It is our pleasure to have you both here. So before diving into the conversation, I think it would be great to get some high level context on both NB Power and the Curve Lake First Nation. So Claire, can you give us an overview of NB Power, the customers you serve, and the top priorities for the coming years?

 

Claire Harris: 

Yes, thank you. New Brunswick Power is regulated to bring safe and reliable power to the homes and businesses across New Brunswick. We rely on 14 generating stations, powered either by hydro, coal, oil, nuclear and diesel to bring electricity to those 300,000 homes and businesses across New Brunswick. We operate a 700 megawatt nuclear generating station, and have been since the early 1980s. That experience has allowed New Brunswick to play an active role in Canada's SMR Action Plan or Small Modular Reactor Action Plan. We are currently working with two advanced reactor companies and are interested in taking a lead role in licensing, operating and deploying advanced reactors in New Brunswick, in Canada and throughout the world. Our commitment is working closely with our First Nations, all 16 of our First Nations of New Brunswick.

 

Jason Price: 

Thank you for that, Claire. So now Chief Emily, for those listeners who may not be familiar with the structure of the First Nations, can you give us an overview of how many people are part of your community, what are your roles as chief entail and how Curve Lake First Nation interacts with government and utility entities in your region?

 

Emily Whetung: 

Absolutely. Thank you so much. So knowing that your podcast is coming out primarily in the US, I'm going to use that as a bit of a comparator. So differences in Canada, First Nations in Canada typically have a smaller land base and membership that what I've seen in the US. Curve Lake is a First Nation in Ontario, Canada, and our land base is about 900 hectares. We have between 2000 and 2,500 members, all ages across the board. The reserve is 6.61 square kilometers, double the size of Central Park.

In Curve Lake, the role of chief, it's an elected position. It's a strange place to try and compare with other elected officials that somebody might be familiar with. We cover federal parts of governance. We cover provincial or state level parts of governance, and we do a lot of municipal pieces as well. So it's this whole gambit of all of these different parts coming together. Curve Lake elects our chief in a general election. We have eight counselors in Curve Lake, and that varies depending on the size of the community. And together the chief and council form the government of our First Nation.

Our treaty area is much larger than our reserve land base. And so the Williams Treaty communities that Curve Lake is a part of, span most of Central Ontario. Our treaty covers parts of Toronto, Kingston goes all the way north up to Sudbury, across Ottawa, all the way to Niagara Falls. So you can see that it's really large land base.

Now, in terms of what this means, I'm going to oversimplify a little bit in our conversation today just so we can get a high level, but in Canada, before our new process can be undertaken on treaty lands or lands that are covered by treaty, the Canadian government or the provincial government in Canada has a legal obligation called Consultation. They have to meet this Consultation requirement, and we usually say Consultation with a capital C. And after Consultation, if there's any concerns raised by First Nations, then the government can have an obligation to modify the project and incorporate those concerns or Accommodate those concerns. So then we can talk about capital A, Accommodations in that legal context.

So the utilities in Ontario and New Brunswick are wholly owned by the government and a couple of different legal structures there, but wholly owned by the government, and have been working for a long time to build relationships with the First Nations who have shared territory. These relationships are looking to be a really critical part of developing new nuclear technology in Canada as the utilities work to satisfy that capital C, Consultation and capital A, Accommodation requirements. Hopefully that's a broad overview there to get us started.

 

Jason Price: 

Oh, that's great. Very helpful and appreciate the context. Now the discussion is on focusing on the importance of sustainability and the clean energy future. So, staying with you Emily, what is the relationship that Curve Lake has with sustainability and the priority placed on a carbon free future?

 

Emily Whetung: 

Absolutely. So the cultural belief of the Anishinaabe, which is our tribal group or our organization, our cultural group. The Anishinaabe, and many other indigenous groups for that matter, focus on ensuring the benefit of the environment for future generations. So our belief is that the earth and its resources belong to the seventh generation into the future, and we've borrowed these resources and must return them to that seventh generation in the same or better condition than we received them.

The seventh generation is a vanishing point. We're never really going to get there, it's always the next seventh generation. So it's sustainability is really about being built into our world view. We're not supposed to take more than we need, and we are supposed to ensure that what we do take doesn't overtax the resources, so there'll be more than enough left for those who come after us. And I think the carbon issues that we're facing and that the planet's facing right now, are ones that we feel are really driving need to address so that there is an earth left for those future generations. So I think that climate change issue really features into our cultural beliefs in a significant way.

 

Jason Price: 

Yeah, absolutely. So, now let's talk about nuclear power, especially the nuclear program at Brunswick. So Claire, over to you. What was the background that led NB Power to prioritize and lead the way on advanced SMR development?

 

Claire Harris: 

All right, thank you. So New Brunswick Power started to look at nuclear or small modular reactors probably about six years ago. We were looking at our integrated resource plan, which we update every three years, and knew that we needed to include nuclear in our generation going forward. We knew that we would have to come off coal and oil eventually, and so as we were looking at the future of generation for our province, we had nuclear in mind for sure.

So we started to look at those reactors, probably about six years ago, in earnest. That was in coincident at the same time as the SMR, or Canada's SMR, roadmap was being developed. And so Ontario and New Brunswick, because we have nuclear programs in our provinces, we're working together looking at different reactors and building Canada's SMR roadmap at the same time. So, because Ontario and New Brunswick are those two provinces operating nuclear power plants, it was natural that these two provinces would take the lead.

As we were looking at the designs, I believe we looked at close to a hundred different SMR designs, we landed on the two designs. One is the ARC Clean Technology and the other is Moltex Energy. And we decided to partner with those two advanced reactor companies, and we've been growing our program ever since. The SMR roadmap continues to grow, and in fact we now have an SMR Action Plan. And we now have four provinces and one territory that are very interested in SMR deployment in their provinces. So any provinces that are not blessed with a lot of hydro then would be looking at nuclear to ensure that we are going to meet our net zero by 50 targets.

Both of the designs that we landed on would be considered Generation IV or advanced technologies. The program in New Brunswick has grown significantly over the past four years. In fact, I would say four years ago there were probably 10 of us in the province working on SMR development, and we just actually had an industry mixer for the holidays and we had over a hundred people show up for that mixer. So the companies, ARC Clean Technology and Moltex Energy, have both been growing as well as New Brunswick Power.

 

Jason Price: 

Fantastic. Claire, you certainly gave away the spoiler here, but I do want to hear, Chief Emily, when you engaged in conversations with Claire and you took the idea of proposing an idea of a small modular nuclear reactor in your territory, I imagine it didn't go over well. So Chief Emily, share with us what was the reaction from the community? How did you position it? What was that whole experience like?

 

Emily Whetung: 

So the Curve Lakes' experience is a little bit different because we're in Ontario and not in New Brunswick, which means we're dealing with a different power authority. But unfortunately, our First Nation is so busy dealing with constant crises that there isn't a lot of time to dedicate to major projects like this. There's also already 12 nuclear reactors in our territory. They're not small ones, they're the big old ones. So the idea of a new reactor, while not entirely comfortable to our community, isn't really novel.

Many of our communities want to see an end to nuclear development because of the waste and the spent fuel that comes out of reactors and that it lasts for such an immense amount of time. The issue isn't necessarily with the power generation side of it. And when I started learning about new nuclear processes, I at first was skeptical, but the more that I learned about the environmental concerns, about wind and solar, the fact that they are insufficient alone to provide a stable base load, the more and more I became open to considering the benefits of nuclear power.

I learned in particular about the recycled fuel process that New Brunswick is exploring. I became very enthusiastic about learning more about nuclear energy, and that's how I got involved with Claire, was this idea that there's an opportunity to use more of the energy coming out of the 12 reactors already in our territory, and reducing, not necessarily the volume, but the longevity of the waste.

 

Jason Price: 

Understood. So Claire, your company, NB Power, is very much a steward of the community. So help us understand, what did NB Power do to take into account the needs and the requests of the First Nation in New Brunswick?

 

Claire Harris: 

Thank you. We already have close relationships with all 16 of our First Nations of New Brunswick. It's a small province and 16 nations, it's pretty easy to get to know each of the nations and know them quite well, because that's not a huge number to wrap your arms around. But since we have those existing relationships, we wanted to make sure that we were going to build on those from a positive point of view. We know that many of those First Nations aren't really that keen on having additional development in their territory, just as Chief Emily had just pointed out, but we want to make sure that we're listening and we're taking counsel from all of our First Nations. And that's really where mentors like Chief Emily who sit on the Indigenous Advisory Council for the SMR action plan, is really, really helpful for someone like me who's trying to do the right thing. She can help me to see a different perspective and build on our plans from there.

We have regular meetings with all of our tribal councils and our consultative bodies, and we have as many face-to-face discussions as we possibly can. And together with our First Nations, we're building an indigenous inclusion and reconciliation action plan. So we're not building it ourselves and then taking it out to the communities, we're building it together with the communities. We have heard loud and clear that our First Nations want to be partners. So with that in mind, we developed the Indigenous Inclusion Reconciliation Action Plan together with our indigenous partners. So the purpose of this is to build a plan to partner. We are not consulting, we're partnering.

 

Jason Price: 

I want to have Chief Emily chime in here. So Chief Emily, can you share your perspective on the collaboration and consultation in general, as well as what was it like to voice your opinion on a nuclear project in Canada? Do you have any advice on how you best facilitated the indigenous voice on projects both in the size and the overall risk?

 

Emily Whetung: 

Absolutely. I think Claire hit the nail on the head there. First Nations want to move from bare minimum legal obligations under the duty to consult in Canada, to a more broad perspective on equity inclusion, ownership inclusion, real partnership, meaningful relationship. Certainly in Ontario with Ontario Power Generation, OPG, the collaboration and consultation that's happening is really phenomenal, and I hear the same things coming out of New Brunswick. We're creating a plan to build those better relationships. OPG has actually integrated into their reconciliation action plan with First Nations, connecting that to bonus structures throughout the leadership roles, key roles in leadership. And certainly each utility approaches things a little differently, the situation on the ground in New Brunswick is a little bit different from Ontario.

When I first met Claire, we connected in so many ways and her commitment to ensuring indigenous voices were heard at the highest levels was clear. Hearing indigenous perspectives isn't enough anymore. These perspectives have to be actioned. And I think that's what Claire's getting at. And I see OPG finding ways to do that at every opportunity. And New Brunswick Power invited me to be a part of the relationship building with First Nations in New Brunswick. I made a trip out there and shared my community's learning journey about nuclear power generation and why it's critical to reducing carbon emissions, but more importantly, why it's critical to have a voice at the table. Having our perspectives heard means that these developments in nuclear power are going to be more respectful of the environment that's so critically important to us.

So hopefully that answers your question. Maybe it was a bit rambly, but getting to the point that we're moving forward together in engagement with nuclear power generation in Canada.

 

Jason Price: 

Absolutely. It's such a collaboration, it's important that it works in tandem and a win-win, I guess you could say. So, it's really great to hear from both perspectives, both from the community as well as from the utility. And I thank you both for taking time to share this insight with us.

At this point, we tend to pivot to what we call our lightning round, where we get an opportunity to learn more about both of you, not the professional, but the personal. We have a few questions we want to ask. Typically, the response is either one word or a phrase. So Claire and Chief Emily, are you both ready?

 

Emily Whetung: 

Do we get a buzzer?

 

Claire Harris: 

I don't think it's a contest.

 

Emily Whetung: 

Oh, okay. I'm ready.

 

Jason Price: 

All right. Well, Chief Emily, I'll start with you and then Claire, you follow up. All right. So Chief Emily, what is your comfort meal?

 

Emily Whetung: 

Popcorn and white wine.

 

Jason Price: 

Claire?

 

Claire Harris:  

Mine's green Thai curry.

 

Jason Price: 

Best way to spend a day off?

 

Emily Whetung: 

Reading.

 

Claire Harris: 

Reading.

 

Jason Price: 

If you could choose one superpower, what would it be?

 

Emily Whetung: 

Teleportation.

 

Claire Harris: 

I'm going to say reading minds, but that might be a bad idea.

 

Jason Price: 

If you were to reset your career, what would you be doing?

 

Emily Whetung: 

I think I'd be right where I am today.

 

Claire Harris: 

I'm loving the work that I'm doing right now. It's the most rewarding part of my career so far.

 

Jason Price: 

And lastly, Chief Emily, what are you most passionate about?

 

Emily Whetung: 

I think I'm most passionate about creating a future that my kids can look forward to.

 

Jason Price: 

Claire?

 

Claire Harris: 

I'm most passionate about inclusion and belonging for all, when it comes to energy, when it comes to climate action. I'm passionate about that.

 

Jason Price: 

Well, you're certainly demonstrating it here, both of you. And fantastic job. So we'd like to give you the final word to our audience. So, let's start with Chief Emily. What advice do you have for other utilities that are looking to better include the needs and priorities of the indigenous peoples in their projects?

 

Emily Whetung: 

I think the best advice is to build a relationship that's meaningful, that's not project specific but a really wholesome relationship. And to do that, you have to listen. So take the time to listen to the needs and priorities of indigenous people and communities.

 

Jason Price: 

Fantastic. And I know that engaging with the First Nations is just one of the many inclusion related initiatives that you and your team work on. Also been reading about all the work you're doing to raise the voices and the profile of women of low income populations and so many more disenfranchised groups. So as you look broadly at the inclusion or lack thereof at other power companies, what would you say is the key to successful engagement and progress towards better inclusion?

 

Claire Harris: 

Thank you. I think building a sense of belonging will take all of us working together. Building trust. And trust is not that easy to build sometimes when you're facing a population perhaps maybe a little different than your own. And so I guess leaning in and allowing that feeling of vulnerability to live, and to trust that if you're approaching a relationship with high integrity, that vulnerability will be okay. Because people will forgive you if you've made a mistake and they'll understand that your best intentions are what's leading you forward. So I think lean in and build trust.

 

Jason Price: 

Absolutely. And this is certainly not the utility industry of the past. There's a lot of stakeholders involved and a lot of voices that need to be considered. And thank you both for taking time out of your day to discuss an important topic. And I know that as the audience digests your message, they'll have more questions. So I hope you're available to address those as they get posted in the comments on energyecentral.com.

So until then though, thanks again for sharing your insights with us on today's episode of the podcast.

 

Claire Harris: 

Thank you.

 

Emily Whetung: 

Thanks so much for having us.

 

Jason Price: 

Absolutely. And we also want to give a shout out of thanks to the podcast sponsors that made today's episode possible. Thanks to West Monroe. West Monroe works with the nation's largest electric, gas and water utilities in their telecommunication grid modernization and digital and workforce transformations. West Monroe brings a multidisciplinary team that blends utility, operations and technology expertise to address modernizing aging infrastructure. Advisory on transportation, electrification, ADMs deployments, data and analytics and cybersecurity.

And once again, I'm your host Jason Price. So, stay plugged in and fully charged in the discussion by hopping into the community at energycentral.com. And we'll see you next time at the Energy Central Power Perspectives Podcast.

 


About Energy Central Podcasts

The ‘Energy Central Power Perspectives™ Podcast’ features conversations with thought leaders in the utility sector. At least twice monthly, we connect with an Energy Central Power Industry Network community member to discuss compelling topics that impact professionals who work in the power industry. Some podcasts may be a continuation of thought-provoking posts or discussions started in the community or with an industry leader that is interested in sharing their expertise and doing a deeper dive into hot topics or issues relevant to the industry.

The ‘Energy Central Power Perspectives™ Podcast’ is the premiere podcast series from Energy Central, a Power Industry Network of Communities built specifically for professionals in the electric power industry and a place where professionals can share, learn, and connect in a collaborative environment. Supported by leading industry organizations, our mission is to help global power industry professionals work better. Since 1995, we’ve been a trusted news and information source for professionals working in the power industry, and today our managed communities are a place for lively discussions, debates, and analysis to take place. If you’re not yet a member, visit www.EnergyCentral.com to register for free and join over 200,000 of your peers working in the power industry.

The Energy Central Power Perspectives™ Podcast is hosted by Jason PriceCommunity Ambassador of Energy Central. Jason is a Business Development Executive at West Monroe, working in the East Coast Energy and Utilities Group. Jason is joined in the podcast booth by the producer of the podcast, Matt Chester, who is also the Community Manager of Energy Central and energy analyst/independent consultant in energy policy, markets, and technology.  

If you want to be a guest on a future episode of the Energy Central Power Perspectives™ Podcast, let us know! We’ll be pulling guests from our community members who submit engaging content that gets our community talking, and perhaps that next guest will be you! Likewise, if you see an article submitted by a fellow Energy Central community member that you’d like to see broken down in more detail in a conversation, feel free to send us a note to nominate them.  For more information, contact us at community@energycentral.com. Podcast interviews are free for Expert Members and professionals who work for a utility.  We have package offers available for solution providers and vendors. 

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