Thursday, July 2, 2015

Renewable Energy Strategies Needed in Northern Ontario

Earlier this month at the G-7 meeting of nations, Prime Minister Stephen Harper committed Canada to a decarbonized economy by the year 2100 (see: “The G7 and its 85-year carbon pledge”, CBC, June 9, 2015).  Others have suggested that more aggressive efforts are needed to wean society off of our reliance on fossil fuels in order hold global warming at 2 degrees Celsius.  What’s clear is that as we head deeper in the 21st Century, our carbon-based economy will continue to transition towards one powered by clean, renewable energy.

That means we’ll need more electrical generating capacity, not less.  Energy conservation efforts, and the development of a smart, distributed grid, will help reduce waste and improve efficiencies – but these efforts alone can’t compensate for the switch from fossil fuels that decarbonization demands. In a decarbonized world, cars won’t run on petroleum, and homes won’t be heated by oil or natural gas.  Power and heat will come from wind, solar, biomass and geothermal energy sources.

As aging energy infrastructure begins to be replaced by smarter and greener technologies, communities in Northern Ontario are discovering that they are geographically positioned to take economic advantage of global decarbonization efforts.  Our northern communities must be prepared to build on this advantage, and seize opportunities to create a truly green economy.  Success will require up-front planning, and buy-in from local residents. Municipalities throughout the north should be looking at adopting renewable energy strategies in order to better leverage economic development from the renewable energy revolution.

Already, renewable energy projects have been built in Northern communities, although not always without controversy. Wind farms north of Sault Ste. Marie and on Manitoulin Island were constructed despite complaints from local residents that the development should have been located in more desirable locations from the community’s perspective, and at a scale which could would have been a better fit for local circumstances.

In Greater Sudbury, a number of large solar power proposals are moving forward through the provincial approval process.  On July 6th, the City’s Planning Committee will be approached by solar developers to endorse these projects.  In absence of a municipal renewable energy strategy, it is not clear what criteria Committee members will use to evaluate proposals.  In 2013, the City refused to endorse all ground-mounted solar proposals except those tucked away in gravel pits.

A renewable energy strategy, developed in consultation with the public, renewable energy companies (many of which call Northern Ontario “home”), and other stakeholders would provide direction and identify opportunities for action.  If stakeholders prefer renewable energy to be developed by way of municipal partnerships, or through citizen-owned co-operatives like Sudbury’s SUN Co-Op, the strategy could highlight ways of prioritising and facilitating these forms of development.  For those who prefer roof-top solar to ground-mounted, the strategy could suggest the creation of a database of “solar ready homes” which energy developers could access.  The strategy could suggest financial incentives for home builders to offset costs where roof and wall-mounted solar panels are included in new houses at the time of construction.

The strategy could be used to promote and enhance synergies from initiatives already underway in the community.  Earth Care’s Action Plan calls for a 15% reduction to greenhouse gas emissions from a 1990 baseline by 2019. In part, the City hopes to achieve this goal by increasing the supply of locally-produced renewable energy.  Cambrian College’s Energy Systems Technology Program is graduating students equipped with the skills needed to literally build the renewable energy sector in Ontario’s north. 

Renewable energy can no longer be looked at as a “nice to have” environmental benefit.  It’s an opportunity for economic development that our Northern communities can seize, with the expenditure of nothing more than a little political will.

(opinions expressed in this blog are my own and should not be interpreted as being consistent with the views and/or policies of the Green Parties of Ontario and Canada)

Originally published as "Northern Ontario needs plan for renewable energy", the Sudbury Star, Saturday, June 27, 2015 (print and online), without hyperlinks.

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