Building Tools to Plan for the Transition to Distributed Renewable Energy

CEKAP launched a project that aims to increase the capacity of communities and local planners to anticipate and manage the landscape impacts of distributed renewable energy (DRE) development within their region. We are focused on ‘land-based’ DRE (wind, solar, biomass) for now, but will expand focus to rooftop solar and others soon. The project combines spatial analysis and community engagement to enable smart and socially inclusive local energy planning.

The transition to distributed renewable energy (DRE) is well underway, driven by structural changes in energy markets, energy technologies, and policy/institutional supports. One way to think about this transition is as a shift from ‘below ground fuels’ that are dug up far away and transported long distances before they are converted into heat or electricity (coal, oil, gas), to ‘above ground’ energy systems that recover flows of energy at the surface and convert them on-site. The opportunities for our local communities are tremendous. As localized and less capital intensive systems, DRE enables home-owners, property owners and communities to participate in energy supply markets through direct ownership or investments. As they displace coal-powered electricity systems and begin to provide the power for an emerging transition to electric vehicles, local air quality and therefore health outcomes are vastly improved.

There are also challenges. The transition to DRE means change, and change means impacts and trade-offs. The focus of this blog, and of most of my research, are the impacts and trade-offs associated with the land intensive nature of DRE systems. Many of the technologies that will drive the transition to DRE – wind turbines, solar panels, biomass production – are highly visible and cover wide areas. In other words, renewable energy systems will re-shape the landscapes all around us, as solar panels covering agricultural fields; wind turbines dotting the countryside and lake front properties; and biomass grown and harvested for energy markets to name only a few examples.

How much land, and what kind of land, will be needed to power a sustainable energy future? What are the trade-offs between DRE systems and other land-based economies and ecosystem services that a given piece of land might provide? How will these land-use tradeoffs be perceived and received by the general public? How will changing technologies and new regulations factor into these questions? And how should our existing land-use planning systems be adjusted to incorporate energy supply into their purview? These are just some of the questions that land-use planners and energy planners are beginning to ask themselves

CEKAP has just launched a project that aims to increase the capacity of communities and local planners to understand, anticipate, communicate, and manage the land-use and landscape impacts of DRE development within their jurisdiction. The project has two phases. First, we undertake a technical mapping exercise that will identify the investment opportunities and land-use impacts associated with different DRE technology options in a particular region. Second, we use those maps as the basis of community and stakeholder engagement, to better understand citizen perceptions of DRE as well as likelihood that local property owners and community members might invest in DRE. The idea at the end of this is to provide a toolkit (data inventory, concepts, techniques) that can be used by planners and GIS departments to build their own maps of the possible opportunities and trade-offs with DRE in their jurisdiction, and to use those maps for broader community engagement processes. Through the project, we are building concepts, tools and techniques that can integrate RE planning into local spatial and land-use planning processes, facilitate dialogue across orders of government, and across stakeholder groups with a collective interest in RE development (from government, business, and communities); and foster healthy and respectful urban-rural relations throughout the energy transition.

To learn more about the details and what this might look like, we encourage you to look at this highly visual and very brief poster. This poster describes an initial proof-of-concept and will give you a sense of the phases of the research and the outputs we will produce for our partnering municipalities.

The project builds from ongoing research at the University of Guelph under the purview of Dr. Kirby Calvert, Assistant Professor in the Department of Geography. The project is funded by Ontario’s Independent Electricity System Operator and the MITACS program, and working through a partnership with the Ontario Climate Consortium at the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority. We are proud to be working with practitioners in GIS and land-use planning and energy planning at the Regional Municipalities of Peel and York, along with the Town of Caledon and City of Markham. We thank our funders, supporters, and partners and look forward to reporting on this research as it unfolds out to August 2019!

Date Published: May 18, 2018
Written by: Kirby Calvert
Category: Uncategorised