Toward First Principles of Community Energy Planning

First principles ensure coordination of efforts, and position for success. This blog will excavate, evaluate, and refine the ‘first principles’ of community energy planning. My insights build on the Getting to Implementation project, inspired conversations with leading practitioners, and my experience as co-chair of the City of Guelph’s energy task force.

I’ll start with some important context, but if you want to get right to the point you should scroll down to the section “Proposing a New Definition and Guiding Principles for Community Energy Planning”

Community Energy Planning is a Matter of Transition Management

They say that the best way to prepare for the future is to help shape it. Community energy planning is a tool to do just that. Canada’s energy system is in the midst of structural change. The push for decarbonization is driving technologies and markets toward decentralization (e.g., rooftop solar and district energy systems) and electrification (e.g., electric vehicles; electric heat pumps). This is happening alongside an emerging ‘sharing economy’ (e.g., ride sharing; bike programs) that may result in fundamental change to how, where, and by whom energy is consumed in communities. These trends are reshaping local landscapes and infrastructure, along with established planning practices and social norms, in unforeseen ways. Community energy planning, in spirit and in practice, is in many ways a response to these structural changes: a social movement to help capture opportunities and reduce risks. According to the latest figures from the Getting to Implementation project, more than 180 communities representing more than 50 per cent of Canada’s population have a community energy plan of one form or another.

The Emergence of Community Energy Planning is a Tale of Two Transformative Acts

The first transformative act is about ‘vertical integration’: i.e., bringing a local lens to the planning process and imparting a stronger role for municipalities and local government in energy planning. Changing energy technologies and market opportunities are bearing upon communities in ways that provincial-level regulators and institutions are ill-equipped to manage on their own. Municipalities and communities can achieve objectives that provincial and federal governments alone cannot. A local lens means that local comparative advantages are more likely to be leveraged, while unique local risks are more likely to be mitigated. Furthermore, local governments have more direct contact with the energy users and distribution entities that must adapt to a changing energy sector. This first transformation is not entirely complete, as the different orders of government in Canada are still trying to sort out at which scale certain energy activities are best managed, how far to expand the municipal sphere of influence, and how best to align regulatory systems.

The second transformative act is about ‘horizontal integration’, and represents a shift from ‘government’ to ‘governance’; in other words a more inclusive planning process that is opened up to the general public, community organizations and business entities. A collaborative governance approach increases community buy-in and brings community resources (especially knowledge and expertise) into the planning process. This second transformative act is what separates community energy planning from local or municipal energy planning. To paraphrase the City of London, this transformation means that ‘a community energy plan is not the City’s plan for the community, but the community’s plan for the City’.

Definitions of CEP Focus Only on the First Transformative Act

Standard practice seems to be focused on the first transformative act, emphasizing ‘local’ energy planning but not adhering to the principles of ‘community’ energy planning.  We can see this in the definitions that underlie the practice of community energy planning. One common definition of community energy planning is the ‘integration of urban planning and energy management’. This definition seems to dismiss the role of rural areas and rural planning which is a glaring omission as rural areas are asked to host the wind turbines, solar panels, biogas digesters and other supply systems that help urban areas meet their renewable energy targets. Another commonly cited definition is “a tool that helps define community priorities around energy with a view to improving efficiency, cutting emissions, and driving economic development”. The emphasis on ‘tool’ associates community energy planning with a product. This is an important start, but the second transformative act we are talking about approaches community energy planning as a process rather than a product; the actual plan itself is secondary to the process through which the priorities are identified and the plan is formalized.

Making matters worse, most provincial governments sow seeds of confusion in programming and press releases that fail to make the distinction between ‘community energy planning’, ‘local energy planning’, and ‘municipal energy planning’. In Ontario, for example, the province foregrounds the latter in some of its programs, and the former in others. I am troubled by how often the three terms are used interchangeably by provincial and municipal government agencies, because they don’t mean the same thing. The trend toward ‘local’ or ‘municipal’ energy planning is surely a transformative shift and one to celebrate. But if we are going to engage in something called ‘community energy planning’, it is important that we take the ‘community’ part seriously. Otherwise, our efforts are like old wine in a new bottle: the same top-down, technocratic approaches to energy planning that have clearly been unable to achieve the kind of system-level changes we are striving for. Let’s not call something a ‘community energy plan’ and then proceed to define municipal-level objectives on the basis of consultant reports and the input of only a few elite members of a given community.

Proposing a New Definition and Guiding Principles for Community Energy Planning

Community energy planning is a socially inclusive process to identify and follow pathways for change in the way energy is produced, distributed, and consumed in order to meet community priorities. The process brings together data and community values in order to develop locally relevant and integrated solutions that recognize the limits of municipal and community influence. It includes two dimensions. First, a strategic plan which provides a focal point for dialogue across municipal, business, and citizen interests about what the future energy system might look like, its role in society, and indicators of positive progress toward this vision. Second, an implementation plan which identifies near-term objectives along with the roles, responsibilities, and resources that are necessary to realize those objectives.

Three principle sets emerge from this definition of community energy planning:

Localization in order to address problems and opportunities at the scale at which they reside.  This principle set includes:

  1. Municipal leadership
    • Commitment to a comprehensive approach to local government, beyond a narrow focus on ‘potholes and parking’.
    • Dedicated municipal staff and resources with a mandate to facilitate and engage in community-wide energy planning.
    • Leveraging corporate assets and financing power to implement new system designs and technologies in the community
  2. Work within the existing sphere of influence
    • Focus on initiatives that are within the existing sphere of influence held by municipal government and community actors
    • Ensure local initiatives are nested within provincial initiatives to take advantage of learning and program funding while taking the long-view
  3. Establish strategic relationships to expand sphere of influence
    • Explore synergies with other municipalities to plan regional infrastructure, especially within common commuter-sheds or within the service area of the same large utility.
    • Lobby provincial and federal government to expand regulatory authority where/when appropriate
  4. Develop robust local decision-support systems
    • Inventory local data and develop data collection and sharing protocols.
    • Adopt reporting protocols espoused by federal or provincial organizations (e.g., the Emissions Analysis Protocol developed by the Federation of Canadian Municipalities) in order to align with other orders of government
    • Incorporate geo-information in the form of maps and spatial analysis into the information set in order to identify local opportunities and improve communication (maps are an intuitive and appealing form of data representation)
    • Use consultants as a resource, not as planners. Analysis should respond to community objectives, not set community objectives. Develop a relational, not a transactional, relationship with consultants.

Integration in order to achieve system level change.  This principle set includes:

  1. Embed energy into the urban and regional planning system
    • Bake energy plans into Official Plans
    • Cross-fertilize energy plans with land-use planning, infrastructure development, waste management and other local-level planning domains and activities.
  2. Start with strategic planning, and work toward implementation planning
    • Strategies transcend sector-specific constraints and opportunities to identify potential synergy, for example between transport and buildings
    • Implementation plans work to engage those specific opportunities
  3. Consider demand-side and supply-side activities simultaneously, so that conservation efforts have an eye toward fuel-switching and fuel-switching is not done before conversation efforts. This is captured in many of the technical principles established and espoused by the Getting to Implementation project, including:
    • improve efficiency
    • optimize exergy
    • manage heat
    • reduce waste
    • use renewable resources
    • use energy delivery systems strategically.

Collaboration in order to raise awareness among the community and increase local institutional capacity.  This principle set includes:

  1. Develop a community engagement plan
    • Ensure ongoing, meaningful consultation with the public at large (especially in the ‘strategic planning phase when targets are discussed and set) and with key change-agents (especially in the ‘implementation planning’ phase when agendas and identified and pursued).
    • Identify priorities and goals at each stage of community engagement
    • Structure the approach as applied research to yield clear directions and ideas
  2. Decentering targets. We do not meet targets for the sake of meeting targets; targets are a means of achieving collective impact.
  3. Formulate a space in which bold, forward looking and potentially controversial ideas can be shared, outside of the context of formal decision-making processes and its politics
  4. More emphasis on bridging the urban-rural interface, particularly in supply management given that much of the renewable resource base resides in rural areas

Toward a New Model for Community Energy Planning?

The old model was predictable in nature. Municipal staff organize a meeting with key stakeholders, and then contract the services of a professional to develop a plan that is consistent with stakeholder views and which foreground the most technically-sound opportunities.  It is also predictable in its outcome.  The community fails to see their role and has very little sense of how decisions are made. The (renewed) principles described above are about building on the strong legacy of previous efforts, in order to place the ‘community’ into what has traditionally been an expert-driven and data-driven planning process.

Assuming these principles are acceptable, the question is then one of governance: how are these principles operationalized in practice? We will provide some answers to this question in a follow-up blog as we explore a recent governance innovation/experiment in Guelph, called ‘Our Energy Guelph’.

Date Published: June 23, 2017
Written by: Kirby Calvert
Category: Uncategorised

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