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Investing in People? Not Novel but Highly Necessary to ‘Build Back Better’

“We sont going to reorganize ourselves around energy systems. How do we do it differently this time?” This was a question posed by Dr. Sheena Wilson during a webinar I recently attended. Since we are currently in the midst of an energy transition, the answer to this question is something we need to get right if Canada is serious about meeting our energy and climate targets while ensuring an inclusive and just transition.

“We sont going to reorganize ourselves around energy systems. How do we do it differently this time?”

The energy transition is a change in many aspects — one of them being social. As you’re reading this, whether you know it or not, you are a player in the midst of an energy transformation. If you’re not involved, you’re missing out on shaping how it unfolds.

There’s been a lot of focus on clean technology and energy efficiency as “the” tools to aid the energy transition and meet our climate commitments. These are critically important tools that have easily measurable outcomes — and who doesn’t want to see the energy savings and GHG emissions reduction figures? I know that I do. But they aren’t magical tools, nor the only tools, and it would be unwise to pin our hopes on them exclusively. For the energy transition to be just and inclusive we can’t rely solely on technology and energy efficiency as the solution, it must be people-centric and one way we can make it so is by investing in building the capacity of community energy players at the local level.

Smart Energy Communities are those which seamlessly integrate local, renewable, and conventional energy sources to efficiently, cleanly, and affordably meet their energy needs. They have been recognized as economic development drivers and implementers, and a solution that is essential to meeting Canada’s net-zero carbon target by 2050. The term ‘communities’ represents more than local government. Smart Energy Communities include any organizations that control or influence energy use, delivery or supply at the local level such as utilities, energy service providers, real estate developers, industrial users, regulators and many more. Focusing on transitioning energy systems at the local level is critical to achieving our energy, economic and climate goals because communities influence over half of all energy use and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in Canada. The work to become a Smart Energy Community is complex and requires a focused effort. This is why capacity building is needed to create them and so that Canadian communities can realize their benefits — more resilient, sustainable, inclusive and affordable places with enhanced economic opportunities and improved environmental quality.

One of the stubborn issues municipal and Indigenous governments face is a lack of capacity to become increasingly self-sufficient or their ability to continuously implement smart energy solutions.

Capacity building —  it might not sound as chic as EVs, but it is grossly needed. As is often forgotten or overlooked, people are ultimately the catalysts for change. Increasingly, municipal and Indigenous governments — key Smart Energy Community stakeholders on which this article focuses — are realizing their power as enablers and implementers in the energy transition. One of the stubborn issues they face, though, is a lack of capacity to become increasingly self-sufficient or their ability to continuously implement smart energy solutions. From QUEST’s recent 3-year Smart Energy Communities Benchmark initiative, and from working for over a decade with hundreds of Canadian communities, we know quantitatively and empirically that these local enablers and implementers often don’t have strong underlying support structures (effective governance models, access to and use of data to make appropriate decisions, staff with the correct training and knowledge) to implement integrated and holistic long-term energy plans as opposed to one-off initiatives.

“Focused funds to support action through localized, regional, and tailored support are needed to see a greater impact,” says Jennifer Muldoon, Planning, Reporting & Knowledge Advisor for the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM).  Under the Municipal Climate Innovation Program (MCIP) and Municipal Asset Management Program (MAMP), FCM has seen a ramp-up in momentum and how municipalities self-assess in the areas of Human Resources and Governance, Technical, and Policy capacities. “Like capital investments, investment in capacity building does result in energy savings and emissions reductions.”

Yes, construction and manufacturing jobs are needed to help achieve net-zero by 2050 and provide economic opportunities. But these jobs continue to be dominated by a workforce that is older, primarily male, and lacks racial diversity. Building capacity in other sectors can create employment opportunities for those that will be left behind if we focus solely on technological solutions, and will also result in cost savings for Canada.

“Canada will end up spending more money than they need to if they don’t invest in and empower grassroots, community-led initiatives — initiatives often spearheaded by women”

“Canada will end up spending more money than they need to if they don’t invest in and empower grassroots, community-led initiatives — initiatives often spearheaded by women,” says Shianne McKay, Senior Project Manager with the Centre for Indigenous Environmental Resources (CIER) and a member of the Canadian Institute for Climate Choices’ Advisory Council. “At CIER we’ve seen that building capacity for energy and climate initiatives ensures that money flows into the community and stays there. Money saved from lowering energy expenditures is then put towards subsistence needs like health and wellbeing. Also, once a network of people is trained, they continue to build skills and on the successes of past initiatives — building momentum for more and more impactful initiatives.”

Just look at London, Ontario and Bridgewater, Nova Scotia. London used to spend $1.6 billion on energy (2014), and only 12% stayed in the local economy with 59% staying in the province. London developed a Community Energy Action Plan, implemented it, and as of 2018 has now saved $730 million in cumulative avoided energy costs, energy use per person has dropped 8% below 1990 levels, and GHG emissions are 9% lower than in 1990. In 2019, Bridgewater was announced as the winner of Infrastructure Canada’s $5 million Smart Cities Challenge for its Energy Poverty Reduction Program. Over the course of the next decade, the town aims to reduce the energy poverty rate 20% by increasing access to affordable, energy-efficient housing, and improving mobility through active and public transportation. Bridgewater aims to achieve this in tandem with reducing emissions in the order of 80% or more by 2050 over 2011 levels and saving $2 billion in energy costs in the 32 year period between 2018 and 2050.  From a recent report published by Indigenous Clean Energy, Indigenous communities are expected to realize $295 million in net annual returns from over 2,000 clean energy projects being pursued.

Communities are complex and highly integrated systems. Local governments’ decisions and actions on land-use, transportation, buildings, energy provision and more lock-in energy and GHG emissions for the long term. Communities are innovating and taking more and more ownership in this space, but additional supports are needed. “It’s hugely important to invest in capacity building for local governments as it’s the only way the work gets delivered,” says Malcolm Shield, Energy Planning & Emissions Strategist at Associated Engineering. “Building capacity not only in the realm of content knowledge but also priority-setting, integrating energy and climate considerations into purchasing, and project management will ensure energy and climate-related projects get done in a timely and cost-effective fashion, and that Canada can actually deliver on the change that is needed.”

“Building capacity not only in the realm of content knowledge but also priority-setting, integrating energy and climate considerations into purchasing, and project management will ensure energy and climate-related projects get done in a timely and cost-effective fashion, and that Canada can actually deliver on the change that is needed.”

Current energy infrastructure and most associated policies were developed and structured to accommodate large-scale and centralized generation. They are not well-adapted to providing local governments with the means and tools to enact more impactful changes, integrating more decentralized grid structures, responding to new consumer preferences, and meeting our climate targets. Canada requires programs and policies for developing new governance and business models while ensuring communities have the data to base their decisions and the capacity to deliver.  “Local governments also need help developing processes and partnerships. They are so siloed that they require support to break down the silos, and that’s often around processes to enable people from different departments and organizations to work together to become more aligned, effective, and efficient” notes Isabel Cascante, Director of Impact & Evaluation at Evergreen. Without these foundational elements in place, we will not realize the scale that investors and governments desire.

A balance of lower-cost solutions, technological solutions, those that focus on empowering people, and those which are more cost-intensive upfront but still deliver the needed outcomes must be co-delivered if we want to arrive at a low-carbon economy where we have the types of jobs that can’t be replaced by machines, people from all walks of life can see themselves in the energy structure, and equal access to the benefits that will accrue from achieving a low carbon future will be ensured.

Building capacity is the hard stuff that nobody wants to commit long-term, stable funds to. ‘Building back better’, an all-encompassing term we’re hearing more of now as we search for ways to improve post-COVID-19, is highly complex. To think we can arrive at a Canada that is healthier, more resilient, sustainable, and inclusive without utilizing all of the tools we have available to us, and focusing heavily on technology and efficiency as the saviour, is short-sighted and lacks an important human element. 

Communities, and the local governments that support them, are going to be more challenged and have less capacity than ever before as they recover from the impact of COVID-19. I applaud the federal government in its most recent fiscal update in taking a more inclusive, feminist and intersectional approach to post COVID-19 recovery — an approach that includes some additional funds for skills development, training, and — but more is needed. Investing in people now by the public, private, and philanthropic sectors will enable implementation of the integrated energy solutions needed to meet our energy and climate goals, ensure people see themselves reflected in and not oppressed by the energy systems that serve them, and truly build back better.

Ericka Wicks

Ericka Wicks

Managing Director, QUEST

Ericka became Managing Director of QUEST in 2020 and prior to that was QUEST’s Director of Projects & Advisory Services. As Managing Director, Ericka oversees the alignment and strategic growth of all of QUEST’s operational areas to support the acceleration of Smart Energy Communities in Canada, and is responsible for financial, human resource, and performance management of the organization.

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