QUEST: intensely messy, disruptive, and local

October 20, 2016

QUEST Smart Energy Communities


QUEST held their annual conference this week in Calgary – in the heart of energy country.

Sir David Anthony King, UK Special Representative for Climate Change, provided opening remarks and they set the stage for the conversations that followed.  These conversation ranged from the global to the local, from growing jobs and the economy to addressing climate change, and from investing in green infrastructure to organizational cultural change.

Sir David gently noted in his opening remarks that it won’t be easy for Canada.  We are, after all, one of the largest emitters in the world. He proposed five priorities. Two of them will require particularly courageous conversations in a Canadian context:

  • avoiding investments in stranded assets
  • the removal of fossil fuel subsidies

Meanwhile, Canada is seeing progress on the other three priorities:

  • the commercial benefits of renewable energy
  • growing investment in research and development as well as green infrastructure a national commitment to carbon pricing

Messy convergence

Social scientists have a field day at a QUEST conference.  Especially social scientists fascinated by complex system change.

Why?  Because QUEST is a messy convergence of several systems undergoing unprecedented transformation – communications, transportation, energy and urban environments.

This is deliberate on QUEST’s part.  Through dialogue, we will better understand existing ownership patterns, institutional arrangements, and the vested interests who feel at risk and must be engaged if we are manage a smooth energy transition.

QUEST has always worked to support and coordinate this change in a purposeful and informed way, based on a framework of 6 technical principles and 6 policy principles to deliver Smart Energy Communities.

Disrupting technologies

The conference provided more insight into how digital technologies and the internet of things are driving change in the energy sector, supporting the commercial expansion of distributed and renewable energy, and fundamentally transforming the way we move people and goods in our communities.

The localization of energy is causing utilities and energy service providers – the smart ones – to rethink current business models.  They are considering their customers and communities in new ways.  And they are using data and analytics to develop better ways to engage their customers.

Conference attendees heard from innovators – both from within and outside the system – who tackling the challenges of legacy technology, regulatory constraints and siloed organizational structures and cultures that avoid risk rather than empower people to innovate.

Energy localization

Sir David also highlighted the important role of cities – the heart of any QUEST conference.

Fossil fuels have given birth to the modern, prosperous Canadian city.  However, the energy base of cities is changing. This signals is a new role for local governments. Indeed, for over 100 years, energy issues have been considered in isolation of virtually all urban services.  At the conference, several communities reported on their efforts to bring the disparate worlds of land use, infrastructure and energy planning together to make smarter decisions for the future.

For many years in my community – Guelph, Ontario – if we needed more water, we dug another well.   For years, where and how water was used in the community was ignored. We quickly learned that conservation and efficiency would cost-effectively help us meet the demands of a growing population.

Our energy system is far more complex than a municipal water system.  But in the same way, the discussion on energy in Canada has largely focused on the issue of supply: on the one hand, the growth and expansion of renewables for domestic use; and on the other, oil sands, natural gas and export pipelines.

What about the other half of the energy equation in Canada: that is, where and how we use energy?

The QUEST solution

The answer to that question starts in our communities. That is to say, Canada’s 5,400 communities – urban, rural, remote and First Nations.  Communities use 60% of Canada’s energy.  They also generate more than half Canada’s greenhouse gas pollution.  The most important emerging opportunities to improve the economic and environmental performance, reliability, and efficiency of Canada’s energy system are found in our communities. As well, communities are where public confidence in the energy industry and support for energy development must be fostered.

QUEST’s view of the energy system starts with the demand and delivery of energy in communities. The conference focused on how can we better produce, move, and use energy at the community level to create jobs, strengthen our communities and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.