The world’s population is becoming increasingly urbanized. As of 2015 more than 50% of us live in cities; 70% of us will live in cities by 2050. Our cities need to become more energy efficient if we are to meet global climate objectives. Well-designed energy efficiency programs bring a range of local social and economic benefits.
Increasing urban agglomeration puts pressures on cities to manage resources and deliver services, particularly with energy generation, transmission, distribution and consumption. “The activities of a modern city require diverse range of energy services: heating and cooling for buildings, lighting of both indoor and outdoor spaces, electric power for appliances, mobility services, communications” (Rutter & Keirstead, 2012). As the demand for energy services increases, “cities are searching for new strategies to continue to offer the quality of life expected by their citizens” (Mega, 2005).
COMMUNITY ENERGY PLANNING and energy transitionS
Traditionally, the residents of a city were not interested in the processes, networks and systems that govern energy production and delivery. Instead, they invested in what energy could do for them (Munier, 2006). In recent times however, advancements in distributed energy systems have placed energy management and ownership within the domain and control of local communities (Denis and Parker, 2009).
In theory, local governance and planning can leverage the social, economic, human, political and environmental drivers for energy transitions unique to each community. Energy planning can be pursued in support of a city’s broader goals of infrastructure, land-use, business, economic, and community development.
Without local action at the community level, argue some commentators (Bulkeley & Betsill, 2005), provincial and national governments will not be able to meet their energy goals. In Canada for instance, municipalities in Ontario are developing Community Energy Plans (CEP) with the stated goals of greater energy self-sufficiency, cost savings and reducing GHG emissions.
Community energy planning is emerging as the gateway for urban energy transitions.
THE CURIOUS CASE OF ENERGY EFFICIENCY
Conventional wisdom holds that energy transitions are driven by the
- use of mature technology that is scalable,
- support of strong policy & stable funding mechanism
to achieve the following outcomes:
- provide clean energy and reduces greenhouse gas emissions (GHG),
- reduce costs and mitigates energy poverty,
- create local jobs and empower communities.
In practice however, even with all those ducks in a row, cities face significant challenges in transitioning towards a sustainable energy future.
Consider energy efficiency projects and programs. We know that lowering energy consumption reduces GHG emissions. Reduced energy costs keeps more money in the pockets of residents – money that could be spent in the local community. We know that energy efficiency is supported by mature technology, and creates well-paid local jobs. Energy efficiency retrofits have been supported by federal and provincial policies, utility rebates and project financing for decades.
Yet, demand side energy efficiency in North America hasn’t reached full potential (International Energy Agency, 2015), especially in the residential and small commercial sector.
What is stopping large scale adoption of energy efficiency programs?
Grappling with this question as a researcher, I draw from my own experiences in my previous life in Michigan.
COMMUNITY ENERGY EFFICIENCY
Prior to my current role within CEKAP, I was a PhD Candidate in Computer Science at Michigan Tech in Houghton, MI.
Houghton is a small university town in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan with the unfortunate distinction of having one of the North America’s highest residential electricity rates ($0.25/kWh). To make matters worse, the region also suffers low median household incomes, old housing stock, long and cold winters, and an ageing populace.
As a graduate student programming and building smart microgrids for the US Army Research Labs, I grew increasingly disgruntled with my research. Despite project successes and quality publications, my work did not seem to have immediate, tangible and positive impacts on the lives of people around me. These feelings were no doubt magnified by living and breathing in a community highly vulnerable to energy poverty.
So when an opportunity to participate in a national energy efficiency competition for communities (GUEP) came up, I quickly signed up. Over time, I learned that simply making a business case for energy efficiency might not be enough. Transformative change across an entire community calls for action and knowledge partnerships among key stakeholders rooted in the community.
In the next few months under my leadership, a coalition of local non-profits, government representatives, utility liaisons, businesses, academics, service organizations, and members of the general public worked to create Michigan’s first community-driven energy plan. With energy efficiency as the cornerstone of its community energy plan, Houghton county became the smallest, most rural and most economically disadvantaged semifinalist of GUEP.
As a cherry on top, my extra-academic efforts in working with communities was recognized through many awards and fellowships, including being named one of ’40 Under 40 Energy Transition Leaders’ by the Midwest Energy News. Subsequently, I began looking for opportunities to scale up the impacts of my work. I decided to move out of the top-down regulatory environment of Michigan.
In September 2016, I was lucky enough to find a city with a mature community energy plan (Guelph), a community of partners that had the capacity and agency to drive long term energy transitions (CEKAP), and a graduate program that would put me in the front and center of communities (PhD, University of Guelph).
As a graduate student in Geography, my research is rooted in the rich history of geographic inquiry – understanding spatial patterns and processes (Aitken & Valentine, 2014). Following in that tradition, my key research questions are-
- What are the challenges and barriers for energy efficiency? What are the solutions, and at what scale do they apply?
- Does it begin with individual transformative change and bubble up? Or does it start with robust federal and provincial policies on top, and benefits of implementation trickling down?
- Are ‘community’ and ‘city’ the ideal unit of analysis for energy efficiency program design?
- How important are community energy plans to driving energy efficiency adoption in cities?
- Conversely, how is energy efficiency prioritized in community energy plans?
- What role does community partnership play in energy efficiency program and implementation? Are knowledge and action partnerships best developed as a part of the community energy planning process?
- What lessons can we learn from designing energy efficiency programs
- How can smaller cities that lack the capacity for building actionable community plans participate in energy efficiency?
- Do these lessons help us prepare for advanced energy transitions (e.g. smart grids) down the road?
Working with community partners to find finding answers to these questions will help built resilient and resourceful communities, where energy access is reliable, affordable and sustainable for everyone.
I will be using this blog to share updates about my research. In the next post, I will talk about energy sustainability in social housing, where the benefits of sustainable transitions are most obvious. Bonus – free infographic with next blog post!