Whitefish River First Nation Partners with Solar Company for Meaningful Employment and 51% Ownership

Northern Ontario Business

By: Lindsay Kelly

A new partnership between Helios Developments and Whitefish River First Nation is providing training opportunities, employment and prosperity for the community within the renewable energy sector.

Launched June 3, Helios Whitefish River First Nation is an offshoot of Helios Developments, the Espanola-based company that manufactures its own solar energy components, installs the systems, and undertakes research and development on new technology.

Helios Developments was selected from 12 companies that presented their business plans to the community. The company opened an office in Birch Island in July and already has five employees from the community working for it.

"The model is basically the same as what we do in Helios Developments- we're still focused on renewables; that's our number one priority-but there's a few other opportunities that are opening with the First Nations company," said Jeff Scharf, a cofounder and co-CEO with partner Trevor Tario.

Jointly owned by the company and the community, Whitefish River has a 51 per cent stake in the company, while Helios Developments retains 49 per cent. The company is initially seeking to capitalize on government Aboriginal set-asides within the Feed-in Tariff renewable energy program, and eventually is planning on building a 15-acre, 500-kilowatt solar field in Birch Island in the next six months to a year.

The company has already created five jobs for community members, which follows with its primary goals: to create employment and bring prosperity to the community.

Helios Whitefish River First Nation will offer First Nations residents career counselling, sponsorship in trades training, and access to an office space.

Helios Developments has been collaborating with Cambrian College and its students on a number of research and development projects, including a prototype for a greenhouse the company hopes to market for northern communities. Access to a deepwater port at Birch Island makes the community an ideal location for shipping the product north.

"We have a really good partnership with Cambrian College," Tario said. "So a lot of the products we're going to start bringing over, and possibly work some of the products we're working on into manufacturing on site in Birch Island, too."

"The relationship with Cambrian was a natural evolution," added Kris Laamanen, COO for both Helios Developments and Helios Whitefish River First Nation.

"We've hired seven of their top grads out of the energy systems technology program. These grads learn a lot about the renewable energy market and these products."

Work begun on the Helios Developments building in Espanola last year is well underway, and Scharf anticipates they'll get into the building by the new year. Joining Helios on the property is a second offshoot company, Helios Fabrication, a welding and fabrication business that's already getting swamped with work.

Once work is complete on the welding and fabrication shop, construction will continue on the 18,000- quare-foot manufacturing plant that will be used to manufacture the company's solar energy components. Scharf said, with all the opportunity in the renewable energy field, he's hopeful Helios and its offshoot companies can make an impact on the local economy.

"I think we're unbelievably positioned in Espanola," Scharf said. "Not only do they have the capacity to put some large projects there for solar fields, we've got a really good relationship with them, so we're working right now on developing a plan to partner on these renewable energy projects, us and the town of Espanola as partners, and hopefully become leaders in the North here."

Tario remains optimistic about the future of renewable energy in Ontario, especially following the province's spring rollout of its new renewable energy plan, which outlines the number of megawatts to be developed every year, as well as its community- and First Nation-based approach.

"We definitely feel like we're in the right sector," Tario said. "We feel like the sector's on a rise; whether or not the FIT program or the Green Energy Act are in place in the next five 10 years, we feel it's irrelevant. It doesn't make any difference to our business plan."