The next chapter for the CEI

April 26, 2019

As a community we face a wide range of issues that require coordinated action across government, the business sector, and the community at large. I want to speak about one of those big issues: climate change. More specifically, I want to talk about climate change mitigation, which refers to our responsibility to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as rapidly as possible (climate change adaptation, on the other hand, is about building resilient communities that can cope with the more extreme weather we are likely to face. These two hands go together – but we can talk about that later!).

The impacts of climate change are already being felt in Ontario, in terms of more regular emergency declarations related to flooding and heat waves in many parts of the province. Those impacts will worsen if we don’t act quickly.

I am deeply encouraged by the fact that politicians and citizens across the political spectrum in Guelph recognize our responsibility to address climate change. The reason for this support is simple: we all recognize that the climate change challenge is in fact an opportunity to:

  • Clean up the air we breathe (I’ve never had to hold my breath to avoid choking on fumes when an electric vehicle goes by);
  • Protect the greenspaces that improve our physical and mental health (those greenspaces pull greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere); and
  • Reduce the amount of money we spend on fuel to keep us warm and move us around the city (although upfront costs of an electric vehicle or air source heat pump are high, operating costs and total lifetime costs are lower than gasoline vehicles or natural gas furnaces).

Local support for climate change action is critical. Across Canada, approximately 60 per cent of total greenhouse gas emissions originate in cities, especially our transportation choices, how we heat our buildings and how we design our neighborhoods. In other words, we can make tremendous strides toward reducing our impact on global climate change right here at home, and in turn reap the benefits of cleaner local environments and lower energy bills.

But how? And whose responsibility is it to act?

Those are the questions that drive Our Energy Guelph. We are a local not-for-profit organization that has been recognized by the City of Guelph as the implementer of the Community Energy Initiative. To us, community energy initiative has a two-fold meaning:

  1. Where it happens. The ‘community’ in community energy initiative implies local action. The Province has a significant role to play, but many of the social and technological solutions fall out of their purview. As our energy system decentralizes, and as we realize the role that urban planning has played in shaping how we produce and consume energy, we have realized the need for a decentralized and distributed governance framework that sees a much stronger role for our Municipal government.
  2. How it happens. The ‘community’ in community energy initiative also implies that action will require public engagement. The strength of our Municipal government will not be enough to drive local action. We need citizens to buy-in and do their part. We need cross-sectoral partnerships that bring our big institutions and our big energy users to the table.

Our Energy Guelph is trying to bring this all together: to define and execute the role of our Municipal government to drive local action while at the same time leveraging the capacity within our community to ensure action is effective and far reaching.

Frankly, without this combination, we don’t go anywhere. Consider rooftop solar energy systems. These are quite popular in Guelph – we have more of them on a per capita basis than the provincial average.  Still, we don’t have nearly enough of them to displace our dirty energy systems. If we want to see solar energy all over the City, our electrical utility will need to consider changing its business model; real estate agents will need to become educated in how transfer of ownership might work when a home with solar energy is sold; zoning and by-laws might need to change to protect solar access (e.g., what if your neighbour’s tree grows so high that it stops your solar energy system from working?). That’s just one example that speaks to the need for coordinated action across citizens, corporations, and local government. There are so many more.

What we need, and what Our Energy Guelph will be, is a community backbone that connects municipality, business, and community and yet does not reside in any one of these spheres alone. With that in mind, here’s how Our Energy Guelph sees this playing out:

  • The Municipality strikes an internal sustainability team at the staff level to ensure cross-divisional communication on these issues. In Guelph, this is called EWACC – The Energy, Water, and Climate Change working group. This will help to ensure that our local government is internally aligned on these issues.
  • A Community Sustainability Coordinator, a paid position internal to the City responsible for liaising between this internal committee and the community. This will help to ensure that our local government is externally aligned; i.e., able to recognize where it can facilitate action among community leaders and able to recognize where it will need to be the leader itself.
  • Our Energy Guelph holds and stewards the Community Energy Initiative. It will have an Executive Director who responds to a cross-sectoral Board, with the sole purpose of directing resources to implement the initiative. Responsibilities include: leading the update of the plan on a regular basis with support from analytical consultants as well as public engagement professionals; initiate and maintain social networks to facilitate communication and shared learning within the community around key items (e.g., ECOA; GEMS); facilitate social innovation and channel resources to individuals and organizations who take on responsibility to implement specific items; and strike the cross-sectoral dialogue needed to move forward on key initiatives.

That last point, cross-sectoral dialogues to move forward on key initiatives, is critical. Our research has already provided us with direction on where we can allocate resources to get the ‘best bang for our buck’. We are convening local government and key capacity holders in our community around these priorities to identify opportunities and gaps in the community/business sector, explore business case(s) where appropriate, and flesh out the role for the municipality (is it a new regulation that's needed? Some funding? Some infrastructure?). If it goes well, we achieve buy-in from key people and organizations with a clear understanding of roles and responsibilities from the outset.

Clean. Prosperous. Resilient. For Everyone. We can imagine an energy system that meets these objectives. Getting there will require action from our local government combined with the capacity held in our community. It will require a collaborative and participatory approach to energy transition management. Our Energy Guelph aims to be the intermediary in this formula; the linchpin that holds it all together. Will you join us?


Dr. Kirby Calvert