Community Energy Planning: From Visioning to Implementation

Image credit:  Jose Pedro Costa

Image credit: Jose Pedro Costa

Originally published in ReNew Canada: The Infrastructure Magazine.

Communities across Canada are grappling with concerns about energy security, global warming, and environmental impacts of energy. In the search for ways to plan for their energy future, more and more municipalities are turning to community energy planning. It is no small effort since communities account for almost 60 percent of Canada’s energy consumption. Community energy planning can be a very useful tool to address energy issues and global warming, but there is a lot to learn from Canadian municipalities that have already moved past the visioning stage into the implementation of community energy plans.

Community Energy Planning

Community energy plans are long-term plans made by local governments to try to improve local energy management by increasing energy conservation and sustainable energy generation as well as reducing greenhouse gas emissions. They are about strategically planning for a community’s energy use now and in the future. Community energy plans are frequently used as a way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but municipalities also choose to think proactively about energy because of benefits like increased community liveability and improved air quality. Some communities put energy goals into broader environmental plans, while others create dedicated energy plans.

From Plans to Implementation

Municipalities that have pioneered the implementation of community energy plans in Canada have encountered some common barriers and reasons for success. Barriers such as lack of jurisdiction, cost of energy measures, lack of capacity and experience related to energy in municipal staff, as well as difficulties in inspiring behavioural change in the absence of regulatory tools have all been experienced by the pioneers. Key reasons for success include political support from the city council and the mayor, and it has also been helpful to integrate of community energy planning principles directly into the municipality’s decision-making processes. Extended experience and capacity beyond a city’s municipal staff has been important for success, as well as an emphasis on inter-department communication across the municipal corporation. For municipalities just starting down the path, the short payback time of many of the projects that can be tackled early also helps in the beginning of implementation, but actions that fall into this category will only take a community so far.

Early adopters of community energy plans in Canada varied in their continued commitment to the original community energy plans when moving into the implementation stage. One method that early pioneers used was to take an approach where the principles outlined in the community energy plan were developed into a broader policy that took advantage of opportunities that arose rather than following a strict menu of activities. Others ended up not using the community energy plan as a day-to-day guiding document, instead using a series of plans that build off of one another and moved the municipal corporation towards a decision-making mentality that incorporated community energy planning principles. Nonetheless, some municipalities did use their original community energy plans as touchstone plans that guided day-to-day implementation and shaped activities in both short-term energy management and long-term transformation of local energy systems.

The implementation path is often reflective of how long the energy topic has been on the table. If a municipality has been tackling energy and global warming issues already, the development and implementation of a community energy plan is less of a learning experience than when energy issues are being considered for the first time. Though the plans and implementation experiences vary, early adopters of community energy planning in Canada have learned lessons that are important for municipalities just starting down the road.

Learning from Pioneering Communities

Municipal Operations vs. Community 

The early adopters of community energy planning principles in Canada have implemented projects that affect energy use and greenhouse gas emissions in municipal operations, but implementation hasn’t been as successful in the community at large. So far, many communities are working on incremental changes rather than re-thinking their energy system in ways that would result in a transformation of the local energy system. Nonetheless, there is a clear appetite for improved local energy management among municipalities in Canada.

Integrated Approach

Community energy planning in the early adopters moved away from the identification of specific projects at the outset and more toward an integrated approach that recognized unanticipated opportunities, affected all decision-making, and made all municipal expenditures reflective of the community energy plan principles. When the goals of the community energy plan are broadly integrated into decision-making and municipal expenditures instead of being considered extra expenses above and beyond the budget, community energy plan implementation is more successful. In particular, an integrated approach establishes a base for long-term transformation of the energy system.

Jurisdictional Challenges

Jurisdictional challenges are a significant barrier in energy planning. Community energy pioneers often had to rethink the methods with which they achieved aspects of their community energy plans since many of their original ideas were outside of their jurisdictional reach. It is important to note that although there are significant energy actions that a municipality can tackle, there are issues that are beyond the jurisdictional control of municipalities in Canada. Aggressive federal and provincial greenhouse gas reduction and energy policies are necessary to achieve swift and extensive change, and municipalities may be influential in asking other levels of government for this support.

Transformative Change

Pioneering communities discovered a distinction between efforts to implement activities that are financially cost-effective in the short-term and efforts to make long-term transformational changes to the local energy system. Not all of the pioneers had reached a stage where they considered both incremental and transformative energy planning. Transformational change incorporating major infrastructure investments will shape local energy systems for decades into the future, but these efforts have only just begun. Municipalities just starting out in community energy planning that want to lay the groundwork for significant change should keep both short-term and long-term energy planning in mind.

Looking Ahead

Municipalities in Canada that want to meet the challenges of global warming and energy security concerns can use community energy planning as a tool. The implementation of community energy plans will encounter barriers, but municipalities can find ways to circumvent obstructions, often with the help of strong political leadership.

Community energy planning will not be effective in Canada if municipalities only focus on municipal operations and quick payback actions.  While some pioneering municipalities made strides in reducing greenhouse gas emissions from municipal operations, there was less of an emphasis on the broader community. If community energy planning is to have a major effect on greenhouse gas emissions and energy use, it will be essential that municipalities take a community wide focus that builds toward transformational change to local energy systems.

For a full report on community energy planning in Canadian communities from Decarbon Strategies, please click here.

Laura TozerComment