Canadian cities, towns play key role in renewable energy revolution

Rating: High school and post-secondary

Summary: Markham interviews Kirby Calvert, project technical lead and co-director of CEKAP (Community Energy Knowledge Action Partnership), about the launch of Quest Canada‘s Free Renewable Energy Planning Resource for municipalities across Canada.

Related links:

  1. Accelerating the Implementation of Renewable Energy – Protocol – press release

This interview has been lightly edited.

Markham Hislop: Now that wind and solar are the cheapest forms of generating electricity and batteries are becoming more and more economical, there is a lot of interest across Canada in renewable energy at the municipal level. Let’s talk about why municipalities should be or are interested in renewable energy.

Kirby Calvert: Yeah, I think there are two parts to that response.

The first is that municipalities, I think, are increasingly eager to demonstrate leadership on the climate change file. They recognize that climate change is a real issue and it is creating some challenges for them locally – flooding and extreme heat and all sorts of things. And they also recognize that there’s an opportunity and in being leaders because depending on how you count, approximately 60% of our greenhouse gas emissions in Canada can be traced back to municipalities and activities that happen within municipalities.

The second reason why I think they want to be involved is the opportunity that I alluded to earlier. So there’s a renewable energy development is not only the best strategy we have to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but it is also one of the best strategies that municipalities have to diversify their local economy and make our energy systems locally more efficient and increasing reliance on local energy resources helps to retain dollars and investments in the community. And that’s really important at a time when municipalities and communities generally have fewer options.

So I think that those two coupled together are the big reasons why

Markham Hislop: I’d say in the last year I’ve interviewed, I don’t know how many economists who talk about the opportunities that accompany cheap, abundant, clean electricity, and it’s an opportunity because it can be generated in rural municipalities just as it can in cities. It kind of levels the playing field around economic development. And it really gives municipalities the opportunity, to differentiate themselves and either grow local industry or attract new industry.

Is that what municipalities are telling you?

Kirby Calvert: That’s exactly right. I mean, all municipalities have access to at least one or two sources of renewable energy. And I think they recognize that developers have a much broader geography with which they can make their investments. And so municipalities are really trying to attract that investment by identifying where their comparative advantage is and making sure that they’re prepared to welcome those advancements on climate change.

Markham Hislop: Now, your organization released a renewable energy protocol. Could you explain what that is, please?

Kirby Calvert: Essentially, it’s a set of resources that we are providing to municipalities in order to enhance their capacity to accelerate the implementation of renewable energy. Municipalities can put solar panels on their roofs, for example, and invest in those and be owners and operators of renewables.

But we’ve also provided them with resources that they can use to facilitate investment throughout the community. So help to ways in which they can change their land use plans, regulations, for example, or ways that they can enhance capacity in their community knowledge and awareness in their community to drive these investments.

It’s an entry point. It’s a starting point, I should say. One way to think about it is that we provide many of the ingredients, but not necessarily the strict recipe because every community is different. They’ve all got different capacity constraints and different opportunities. We tried to develop a series of resources that can meet them where they’re at and help them build capacity.

Markham Hislop: So if I was the mayor of a town or a town administrator, or some have economic development officers these days, this is a place that I could go to, to get acquainted with the idea of municipal action on renewable energy and, and basically a starting point for the municipality’s renewable energy strategy?

Kirby Calvert: Yes. It gives you a sense of the steps that you would need to take and some of the action items that you need to pursue. And in addition to that, if you’ve already got this, if you know your next step, it’s a bit of a clearing house for information and best practices. So it’s a place where you can go to find examples of what other municipalities have done in terms of restructuring their land use plans, for example, or how municipalities have invested in renewable energy, the different investment models that have been used.

It’s really a place where we hope it does ultimately facilitate knowledge diffusion and policy innovation much more rapidly than is currently the case. There are many municipalities across Canada, they’re all doing really great things. And we wanted to try to pull a lot of those learnings and best practices into one place to help everybody along the way.

Markham Hislop: Well, let’s talk about federal and provincial policy. So in mid-December, the federal government’s major update of its climate plan put a lot of money on the table, including a $964 million funds aimed at grid modernization and renewable energy projects. But there also some provincial governments that are very active in electrification. So we see BC has clean BC and Quebec just brought in an electrification strategy that has to have municipalities fairly excited about the prospect of renewable energy, I would think?

Kirby Calvert: I think so as well. Certainly, you know, municipalities can’t do it all themselves, and we don’t want to give that impression. Municipalities have a particular role to play. They are, as the saying goes creatures of the province. And so the province really sets in many ways, their mandate and their authority.

If provincial governments are serious about electrification, for example, or expanding renewable energy more broadly, the use of biofuels, biomass based district energy systems, then the first place they need to look is, are the resources that they’re providing to municipalities because that’s where the rubber meets the road. So financial resources that you mentioned are critical to that. In addition, also the legislative capacity that municipalities have and the mandates that they have, because oftentimes some of the barriers to the diffusion or acceleration of renewable energy are subtle. They’re embedded into municipal Land plans. As I mentioned, how how cities view themselves as developing and evolving over time is dependent on whether or not they’re going to be using local renewables or some other source. And so I think provincial governments also need to to provide resources and legislative authority and mandates to municipalities to be thinking about the policies that they need to be applying at a local level to facilitate this.

Markham Hislop: Last question Kirby. Some of the municipalities – I’m thinking of Edmonton and Calgary in Alberta, for example – have their own utilities. And they own everything from generation to distribution to retail. Is that a particularly unique set of circumstances in Canada, or do we see municipally-owned utilities across the country and eager to get in on renewable energy?

Kirby Calvert: Certainly a lot of utilities across electric utilities across Canada are municipally-owned. The policy context in which they’re operating varies tremendously.

One of the challenges with local municipalities is that even though in many cases, the primary owner is a municipality, the utility itself is responding to provincial directives and is responding to provincial energy plans. That is certainly the case in Ontario and the jurisdiction I’m most familiar with.

There is an ongoing question about what the role of the utility is and the directives to which it should be responding. So they are local in the sense that they operate within our space and within our communities, but they are provincial in the sense that they respond to provincial regulations and are hamstrung in some ways by provincial regulations.

So it’s not altogether unique. It lends itself well, there are advantages to having that kind of a relationship with local utility, but still, we need to be very careful and aware of the alignment across utility plans and provincial energy plans and municipal energy plans. Those still need to be stitched together very carefully.

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