Purpose and Objectives
The purpose of this section is to help municipalities shift land-use planning frameworks from a decelerator of renewable energy development to an accelerator of renewable energy development. By the end of this section, you should be able to:
Articulate the significance of local land-use plans and zoning bylaws to renewable energy development
Identify exemplary cases in the progress that has been made to incorporate renewable energy development into municipal land-use planning frameworks across Canada
Build on these exemplary cases and general lessons learned to strengthen your own planning frameworks in climate change mitigation and economic development
One thing to keep in mind is that we focus here on renewable energy development strictly speaking. There are surely a huge range of opportunities to revise planning frameworks to support sustainable communities more holistically – e.g., active transit, local food, electric vehicles, urban forestry, and so on. But for the purpose of this work, our focus is on how planning frameworks can facilitate renewable energy generation and fuel switching.
Background and Significance
Land-use planning is energy planning.
As our communities came to rely on imported fossil fuels, the area of land that was needed to provide energy services fell precipitously — e.g., wind-powered water-pumps were taken down; swaths of land once producing feed for draught animals was repurposed, and local woodlots served only a small fraction of heating requirements. At the same time, energy conversion infrastructure became highly centralized in large-scale power generation and fuel refining. Through historic zoning, these facilities, and their linear distribution infrastructure, were located out-of-sight for most of the local population. Our landscapes became increasingly detached from energy production activities. Settlement patterns evolved under the assumption that energy would be generated outside of settlement boundaries. As did our ideas about what a landscape should look like: i.e., we came to normalize a landscape as generally devoid of energy infrastructure.
Our increasing reliance on renewable energy — e.g., solar; wind; biomass — is reversing this trend. The transition to RE has re-introduced energy production into communities that had been detached from such activities over generations of fossil fuel production and consumption. With these new activities come trade-offs involving prevailing land-based economies and ecosystem services, for example in the ‘food vs. fuel debate’ surrounding biofuels and large-scale solar, and the issue of local habitat disruption in the case of wind turbines. These trade-offs are certainly not unique to renewables. What is different, rather, is that the trade-offs are being experienced across much wider geographic areas, and coming into confrontation with a much larger proportion of the population — no longer confined to specific fossil-fuel bearing regions and no longer occurring ‘out of sight, out of mind’. At the same time, distributed energy resources are forcing us to re-think urban areas as spaces of energy production, not only as spaces of energy consumption.
In other words, land use planning represents the ‘front lines’ of the transition to renewable energy. Over multiple generations, land-use planning frameworks have co-evolved with fossil fuels and have structured social and economic activities across our landscape in ways that maximize their use in society. Land-use planning frameworks represent the spatial manifestation of ‘carbon lock-in’; producing landscape patterns and social relations to land that privilege fossil fuels and inhibit effective low-carbon energy transition strategies from taking shape. As a corollary, land-use planning frameworks have not been designed to account for, or accommodate, the very different spatial properties of renewable energy systems. At the same time, land-use planning systems are not always prepared to manage the land-use trade-offs and landscape impacts that come with RE development.
Framed in this way, we understand land-use planning as energy planning: i.e., as part of the problem and the solution in designing governance systems that work toward a renewable energy transition. Planning frameworks and instruments of planning institutionalize and codify dominant landscape values and act as levers of control on RE development and, in turn, shape processes of energy transition on the ground; e.g., in terms of determining which locations are deemed ‘acceptable’ or not for particular kinds of RE infrastructure. In this regard, the City of Kingston has framed the role of land-use planning very well:
As a result of technological advances and energy deregulation, various forms of renewable energy are now able to provide thermal and electrical power on a site-specific basis, district basis, or as part of a more expansive utility grid system. The social, economic and environmental benefits of using renewable energy technologies in developments are well-documented. Still, these merits must be balanced with assuring the functionality of the technology, and its compatibility with the natural environment and surrounding land uses.
City of Kingston, Official Plan
Clicking on the links below will take you to data sets that contain verbatim examples of how renewable energy has been incorporated into municipal planning policies within that region. For the purposes of this project, we have gathered data from the three regions represented by our municipal partners: Alberta, Ontario, and New Brunswick. Although regulatory conditions vary across provinces, these data should provide examples and insights from which municipal sustainability practitioners can improve the integration of land-use planning and energy planning in their own jurisdiction.
To compile these data, we undertook a structured content analysis of land-use planning policy documents that are publicly available online. We searched for explicit references to renewable energy and then copied each reference into a table. If the table is left blank for a particular municipality, it means we could not find an explicit reference to renewable energy in the respective planning document, or we could not find a publicly available document. Where appropriate, the data are broken out according to administratively -defined categories of local government within each region – e.g., single tier vs. upper-tier in the case of Ontario, rural communities vs. towns vs. cities in the case of New Brunswick. A simple search based on a keyword (ctrl+f) will return excerpts verbatim that may be useful to best fit your need (e.g., to search for how district energy, specifically, has been addressed). In terms of our own analysis, we summarize key takeaways and general lessons learned to provide general insights that can guide your efforts in your own community.
Key Takeaways and Exemplars
Audit land-use plans and regulations through a ‘renewable energy’ lens
RE development touches upon a wide range of planning policies and zoning regulations related to groundwater protection (geo-exchange systems), urban design (district energy, rooftop PV), rural resources and natural heritage systems (wind, solar, and biomass energy), to name a few. A ‘matrix management’ approach is required to understand how particular technologies interface with the policy and regulatory system across these multiple domains. For an example of what this might look like, consider ‘The Crosswalk’, a new tool developed by the Community Energy Knowledge-Action Partnership to support cross-departmental alignment of policies and regulations.
Efficiency and renewable energy require a balanced treatment
In general, planning policies refer to energy efficiency more frequently and with stronger intention than renewable energy or fuel switching. This imbalance is sends mixed signals and compromises the ability to meet greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets, because a more efficient system is not necessarily a less carbon-intensive system. The imbalance also ignores the range of policy issues related to RE development that are within the municipal purview, including questions surrounding connection obligations to district energy systems; groundwater protection from geo-thermal and geo-exchange systems; the conditions under which new RE infrastructure might be permittable in rural and natural areas; setback distances for large wind turbines; and ‘right to light’ policies for solar development in urban areas. The databases above provide myriad examples of how RE can be incorporated into local planning frameworks to strengthen climate change mitigation, and to address these emerging issues.
Emphasize system efficiency (district-scale) as well as site efficiency (building-scale)
Municipal planning frameworks tend to focus on site-level efficiency and renewable energy (e.g., driving builders toward ‘net-zero’ or ‘net-zero ready’ building designs). Emphasizing system-efficiency, by setting performance targets and criteria on a district or a neighbourhood scale rather than on a building scale, can improve efficiency while accelerating implementation of renewable district heating systems or micro-grids at scale. These opportunities can be expedited by leveraging urban redevelopment opportunities – e.g., the Ottawa Zibi project. Master plans, secondary plans, and community improvement plans are all policy tools through which municipalities can drive system efficiency through district-scale renewable energy systems. These practices are often communicated as ‘low carbon districts’.
Think strategically: be a policymaker rather than a policytaker
Local planning policies rarely include a clear guiding strategy on the policy approach to renewables. The Town of Okotoks provides a commendable exception. The 2020 draft version of their Municipal Development Policy includes a clear vision statement, along with a series of principles and policies through which to execute that vision:
Okotoks is a leader in net zero carbon energy and encourages innovative solutions to carbon energy consumption in building design, energy sources. We develop partnerships to deliver renewable energy and all our energy comes from non-polluting, renewable sources. We eliminate fuel poverty while sharing information on energy education programs for individuals, companies, and institutions.
Town of Okotoks, Draft MDP
Follow through with changes to zoning by-laws
In many cases general policy positions and vision statements are not supported by specific provisions or by-laws that follow through on declared intentions. Notable exceptions in this regard include the following:
Green Zoning: The City of Saint John amended their municipal by-law to allow land outside of the “primary development area” (e.g., rural resource areas; parks and natural areas; heavy industrial areas) to be designated a ‘green energy zone’, subject to compliance to the conditions specified in the by-law. Conditions pertain to land access, setback distances, screening (aesthetics), the permit process including the need for a decommissioning plan, and other considerations. In these cases, green energy is not considered a permanent use. This approach may be applied to support district energy systems in development areas.
Green Development Standards: The Town of Whitby and the City of Toronto have amended their development charge by-law to provide rebates to those developers who exceed the minimum standard on new builds. The standard considers site design features and building features that reduce urban heat island, enable site-level or district renewable energy; and maximize energy efficiency and GHG reductions. What is considered ‘basic standard’ on each of these dimensions increases over time, ensuring continued innovation while phasing-in best practices.
Perhaps the most important feature of these policy tools is that they are directional rather than specific – i.e., they are flexible regulations. Flexibility has been noted to drive many innovative low-carbon developments (see McVey et al., 2017).
Consider special designations and temporary uses for solar farms
A solar farm is not a permanent land-use which provides opportunities for development: e.g., land zoned for development in the next 25-30 years, without a near-term development plan; land-fill sites that have been capped and are undergoing extensive monitoring before conversion to a greenspace (i.e., a transition strategy that goes from brownfield to brightfield to greenfield).