Engaging for Positive Energy

October 9, 2017


Hand grabbing electricity

Energy regulators, policy makers and academics recently met in Ottawa for the last of three workshops hosted by Positive Energy, an initiative of the University of Ottawa.

These workshops have taken aim at the decline of public confidence in energy decision-making, from pipelines to wind turbines.

Their work documents several social, value and technological changes that the current energy system is struggling to respond to which includes the growing localization of energy. They also identify three policy gaps that confound energy decision-making in Canada: climate, reconciliation with Indigenous peoples and how to deal with the wide ranging and cumulative effects of energy development – economic, social and environmental – on local and regional communities.

The last workshop focused on how to make decisions. Several presentations explored the need for more effective community engagement. Communities are demanding a greater say in large energy projects. They are also becoming more engaged in the energy system as new, competitive technologies release local capacity for distributed energy generation and storage. Local governments have considerable experience engaging their own communities. This experience, coupled with their growing adoption of the IAP2’s Public Participation Spectrum (inform, consult, involve, collaborate, empower), has much to offer the energy sector as they seek to build trust and a new culture of engagement.

Another compelling opportunity revealed at the workshop, is the experience of some Indigenous communities forging a new relationship with energy regulators and government. Energy is becoming a force for reconciliation as an emerging synergy between planning, policy and regulation promotes energy democracy in some Indigenous communities. Renewable energy projects are leading the way, with growing opportunities in energy efficiency, thermal energy and microgrids.

We trust organizations when we can see their interests are aligned with our own, we have confidence that they are competent to deliver on their mandate, and they do what they say. Real community engagement, and not a checklist of activities, opens the possibility of finding the win-win in a decision. The remarkably simple act of talking to people starts to build the relationships that underwrite trust. Conversation opens new channels for communication which are essential today to counter social media’s amplification of damaging misinformation and stereotypes that get in the way of informed and respectful decision making.

The energy sector is being challenged by substantial external forces. That is true. Yet, the most challenging of all will be the disruption that must be led from within. The entire system has been built for another era, the past, and it must be rebuilt for a positive energy future.