The case for community energy planning

The CEKAP research team is interested in identifying and overcoming the barriers to the implementation of community energy plans. Why are we focusing on community-level energy planning?  And how might we envision the role of our municipal partners in the planning and implementation process?

In Canada and abroad, we are experiencing structural change in the way energy is produced, delivered, and consumed. The combination of rising energy costs, technological innovation, and changing consumer expectations are making the business case for decentralized energy systems increasingly compelling.  New technologies from rooftop solar energy to natural gas recovery at waste facilities and farms, are decentralizing energy production. Net-zero energy buildings and district energy systems are decentralizing energy storage and control. Electric and other alternative-fuel vehicles are re-shaping local mobility patterns and fuel supply infrastructures. Meanwhile, energy transmission and distribution companies are being forced to rethink business models and infrastructure planning processes. All of these market trends are converging on communities, driving changes to local landscapes and providing new opportunities as well as challenges to energy service delivery and economic development at the local scale.

These changes are easier to manage, and to accept, if they are guided by a community energy plan.  Community energy plans (CEPs) can help ensure that we can identify and capture opportunities to leverage those structural changes toward local and more equitable economic development, for example targeting investments that provide new energy-related revenue or reduce energy-related expenses in social housing.  Furthermore, CEPs can help to ensure that growth management strategies are coordinated with energy management strategies.  This will establish a path for growth while reducing associated energy-related ills such as urban smog, unsustainable sprawl, and utility system expansion and congestion and rising energy prices.

Connected to structural market changes are new political priorities related to climate change. The United Nations, our global climate change governing body, has identified a significant role to be played by local governments in climate change mitigation efforts.  More than 60 per cent of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions are produced within cities, and are therefore under some degree of control of local governments. Many of the changes that are necessary to mitigate climate change, from the way individual cities are zoned for land-use to the way transportation systems develop, are simply outside of the purview of provincial governments. Provincial governments across Canada have encouraged local governments to develop a CEP to identify priorities for reducing GHG emissions.  If we are to make any progress on our national commitments toward climate change mitigation, then local governments must integrate energy management into their urban planning efforts.

In this context, the purpose of a CEP is to manage structural changes in the energy system and, in the process, to establish a vision for a city that is energy efficient, increasingly reliant on local sources of renewable energy, and leveraging its energy systems to achieve social, economic and environmental objectives. An energy efficient city means more comfortable homes that are cheaper to live in, which is especially important as we are very likely to face rising energy prices over the next few years. ‎ Drawing on local sources of energy, such as a biogas generator from a group of farmers or a solar electricity system from the local recreation center, means that our utility bills support local economies and the local tax base. Through CEPs, we will have done our part to help resolve the global challenge of human-induced climate change while simultaneously supporting local jobs and economic development.

Typically, the words ‘community’ and ‘plan’ imply a central role for local government; ‘community’ is commonly associated with cities and municipalities while ‘plans’ are commonly associated with formal government activities. Here, we suggest that ‘community’ goes far beyond ‘municipality’ or with ‘city’, and ‘planning’ should not be relegated only to elected officials and city staff.

The vision expressed through a CEP needs to come from outside of City Hall, so that local citizens and stakeholder groups feel a sense of ownership and empowerment. In this view, local governments should facilitate the visioning process, and then find ways to facilitate corporate and social initiatives that are consistent with this vision. The common denominator here is facilitation. To be effective, government must be one among many stakeholders, rather than the gate-keeper, in the development and implementation of a community energy plan.

Of course, local government needs the support of higher levels of government to fulfil this role in a meaningful way. One example is the provision of authority to establish more progressive building codes. But there are ways local government can facilitate the development and implementation of CEPs through existing governance structures, such as new land-use plans, strategic investments, incorporating energy management plans into official plans, regular town-hall meetings, and sharing data. Given that many of the solutions involve new patterns of land-use, new use of local resources, and new infrastructure, it is also important to bring together rural and urban counterparts.  Breaking down barriers at the urban-rural divide and working in collaboration with neighboring municipalities is crucial in order ensure that CEPs leverage synergies across broader geographies and are not narrowly focused on urban views and realities.

Perhaps most importantly, CEPs need to balance long-term objectives with short-term issues. Governments, from local to national, tend to prioritize the latter and often for good reason – because we always need to focus on social benefits and to do what we believe is right in the moment. But we also need organizations that prioritize the long game. Stay tuned for a follow up blog on the idea of an ‘intermediary’ – a non-governmental organization that fulfils this role by operating between government and community, and between the ‘status quo’ and novel energy technologies and institutions. We will explore the notion that an ‘intermediary’ can help to implement community energy plans, based on some research that members of CEKAP conducted over the summer of 2016.

Date Published: November 12, 2016
Written by: Kirby Calvert and Ian McVey
Category: Blog