Energy disruption no fantasy

April 12, 2016

energy engineers

Guelph’s community energy plan has been in the news lately.  Understanding why is instructive.  This is my take on it.

First, a community energy plan (CEP) is nothing more than a tool to help a community figure out how to use less energy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions while driving local economic development.  Guelph’s CEP aims to make Guelph a low-carbon city.  This is now a global aspiration in light of the agreement that was reached during the Paris climate change talks last year.

Guelph’s CEP is very comprehensive.  Some parts are doing well, others not so much.

On the positive side, Guelph has seen a higher than average uptake of rooftop solar energy systems.  There are likely many reasons for this but it always starts with homeowners, businesses, church congregations and public institutions making a choice to be part of the solution.  They are the innovators and early adopters.

Guelph’s home builders continue to push the envelope on home energy performance.  Recently, we saw the completion of several net zero energy homes. This sector has the potential to grow even more local jobs with the right support.  It is not hard to see the future when some North American jurisdictions will be mandating net zero energy construction in less than five years.

And the Green Gryphon Initiative at the University of Guelph is doing a commendable job of reducing energy and water consumption on campus.

While celebrating and learning from these achievements, and many others, we must also understand what is not going well and why.

Too often CEPs remain aspirational because they do not challenge the regulatory, institutional and market status quo sufficiently to realize the full potential for energy savings and local energy generation.  Those that do face tremendous resistance.  Guelph’s CEP is one of them.  The recent controversy over Guelph’s CEP is focused on one aspect of the plan – district energy.  There is a reason for that – it challenges the status quo.

When the Guelph CEP was developed 10 years, the electricity utility was one of its biggest champions and saw a role for the company in district energy.  Guelph was lucky at the time to have a utility prepared to look beyond its regulatory mandate to meet the community’s future energy needs.  Times change – sometimes for the worse – and today the utility has become the biggest impediment to district energy.  Perhaps the most telling sign that something is amiss has been unconscionable attacks on the competence of numerous industry experts who have been involved in one way or another over the last 10 years. Professionals sit down and work through conflicting information.  They seek to understand each other, to find solutions.  When people resort to character assassination to make their case, something else is at play.  That we find ourselves at this impasse is not entirely unexpected.  Utilities frequently resist the transition to local and renewable energy resources.  Ten years ago, our utility was the exception that proved the rule – but not today.

I have watched this kind of scenario play out many times before.  The public sector can be very adept at defending the status quo.  This drives the private sector crazy.  While this culture is always frustrating, it can be really bad news when those protecting the status quo find themselves conveniently aligned with political and ideological interests. The first casualty is open information sharing which can lead to well-meaning people believing they are making the only decision possible in sticking with the status quo.  The potential financial, economic, social and environmental losses to a community can be staggering. Unfortunately, some people are prepared to ignore these losses to advance their own agenda.

District energy has effectively been on hold for two years.  I am sure this is causing some private sector investors cause for concern.  Media reports suggest that it will likely be on hold for at least another year.  Such inaction would prove fatal for most businesses.  With district energy, when you lose a customer, you have lost them for 20 years or more.

These observations are not intended to disparage the men and women who work for our electricity utility.  They do an exceptional job delivering electricity safely to our homes and businesses, responding to power outages during ice storms, connecting solar installations to the grid and delivering on their mandated conservation and demand management targets. In most measures, they are top in class.  Problem is – this won’t be enough.  The energy game is changing.  We are no longer playing checkers.  We are playing chess and long-term strategy wins the game.