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Building local community confidence in renewable energy development

  • Communications
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  • Oct 17, 2016
Building local community confidence in renewable energy development

The Hon. Elizabeth Dowdeswell, Lieutenant Governor of Ontario

As energy development becomes increasingly contested by the public, understanding what is driving the conflicts is critical.

An Ivey Idea Forum on September 23 in Toronto called Building Local Community Confidence in Renewable Energy Development addressed this issue from public, private, and academic perspectives. It was organized by the Ivey Energy Policy and Management Centre, which is focused on advancing research and discourse on energy issues.

“Understanding the root causes of resistance and, conversely, why some communities are very accepting and open to these new developments, can lead to important insights into policies and processes that, on one hand, can balance local community concerns, and at the same time take into account the broader public interest,” said Ivey Associate Professor Guy Holburn, Energy Centre Director and the Suncor Chair in Energy Policy.

The event featured a keynote address by The Hon. Elizabeth Dowdeswell, Ontario’s Lieutenant Governor. Then panellists including Ken Hewitt, Mayor of Haldimand County; Margaret Loudermilk, Research Director of the Ivey Energy Policy and Management Centre; Michael Lyle, Vice-President of Planning, Law and Aboriginal Relations at the Independent Electricity System Operator (IESO); and Kris Smith, Executive Vice President of Downstream, Suncor shared expert insights on this challenge.

Here is a summary:

The Hon. Elizabeth Dowdeswell: Better public engagement means better decisions

Drawing from her experience as president of the Nuclear Waste Management Organization from 2002-2006, Dowdeswell discussed the importance of engaging the public and trying to understand their values. Not only to gain their support, but because they can provide valuable insights that lead to better decisions.

“People who are affected by policies bring special insights and on-the-ground knowledge to the table, and astute decision-makers in both private and public sectors are very wise to recognize this at the start,” she said. “Just as importantly, policies and decisions that are developed in an environment of trust and confidence are much more likely to draw public consensus. People who feel integral to a process will be motivated to help sustain its outcome.”

Michael Lyle: Bottom-up planning gives communities voice

Lyle shared how the IESO has been engaging with communities, often through the establishment of Local Advisory Committees, when procuring renewable generation. During the first phase of Ontario’s Large Renewable Procurement (LRP) process, where companies submitted proposals for renewable energy projects, he said those projects that had community support and participation from Aboriginal groups had an advantage in the competition.

“We’re moving to a more bottom-up planning and, hopefully, more of a discussion where communities are going to have more of a voice in the future of how their electricity needs are going to be met,” he said.

Margaret Loudermilk: Uncovering the causes of community resistance

Loudermilk cited findings from an Energy Centre study called Local Community Responses to Wind Generation Development in Ontario, which is part of a larger project looking at stakeholder engagement in energy infrastructure development. The study showed there is more community resistance in areas where there are multiple energy developments, suggesting community concerns have a cumulative component. Some of the concerns revolved around how energy projects will affect property values, how much landowners are being paid, how benefits are being distributed among community members, and the effects on energy prices.

“The benefits tend to be more large-scale, but the costs tend to be more local. The distribution of benefits and costs, and how that should be divided, is one area we might consider when thinking about community confidence and why there’s conflict,” she said.

Ken Hewitt: Advice from a NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) community

Hewitt said he made the best of a challenging situation when, shortly after becoming Haldimand County Mayor in 2010, he signed agreements with four companies for wind turbines to be installed in the community, despite local opposition. Under the agreement, the wind companies will pay Haldimand County close to $40 million over 20 years through a community vibrancy fund. The wind turbine project fell under the province’s Green Energy Act so Hewitt said he knew the final decision rested with the IESO, which approves and regulates energy projects, and would move forward regardless. The community vibrancy fund agreement was his attempt to create something positive out of it. Haldimand County later declared itself an unwilling host to stop more wind turbines from coming.

“From the perspective of the public, I was a traitor – a sell-out,” he said. “It was quite a challenge because I understood that the legislation and policy that was implemented was going to happen. The train was coming and it was just a matter of did we want to get hit by it or get on it?”

From that experience, he suggested four factors need to be considered before moving forward with energy projects:

  1. Education – The public needs to be educated about how the current energy sector functions and what lies ahead for the future;
  2. Trust – Rules must be strictly adhered to and communities must be consulted early on in the projects to build trust;
  3. Confidence – People have to understand and buy into the long-term plan, not just a short-term mandate; and,
  4. Public and host participation – Communities need to be offered incentives to bring them onside.

Kris Smith: Social licence is critical

Smith discussed the importance of energy companies gaining a social licence to operate by engaging at the local level early on in a project; not once investments are made and there’s no turning back.

“How the decision is made is as important as the decision itself. People want to know that decisions are being made with integrity, equity, and transparency,” he said.