Energy is coming back home again: challenge for regulators and legislators

Posted on Thursday, November 16, 2017

Author: Karen Farbridge

President, Karen Farbridge & Associates Ltd.
Former Mayor of Guelph

Energy regulators and legislators are under increasing pressure to respond to a rapidly changing energy sector. 

There is a global energy transformation underway which is changing the energy sector into a cleaner, smarter, distributed and mobile energy ecosystem. At the same time, research out of the International Energy Association notes that successful urban energy planning is only possible, if energy planning is integrated in the entire urban planning process.

However, in many countries, including Canada, consideration of energy issues is missing in urban planning processes, and vice versa. Many cities are trying to address this gap, but greater co-ordination between municipalities and the energy sector will be necessary, if both parties are to effectively address new climate adaptation and mitigation imperatives. Progress is being challenged by the lack of a common language, tools or platform to effectively engage with one another.

We went through an energy transition, a hundred years ago. At the end of the nineteenth century, many Ontario industries still relied on steam power generated from American coal, but rising prices and coal shortages began to threaten the industrial success of our growing towns and cities. In response, mayors and boards of trade turned to a new energy technology to power local industry. By the turn of the century, there were more than 145 electrical systems in Ontario, and almost all them were municipally-owned. At the same time, fourteen cities, that belonged to the “Power for the People” movement, were influential in the formation of the Hydro-Electric Power Commission of Ontario, which brought abundant and cheap Niagara power to homes and businesses, for the first time, in 1910.

One hundred years ago, Ontario communities took steps to accelerate the transition to a new industrial age, powered by oil and centralized electricity. Their singular purpose was to protect local resilience and prosperity. They had to invent new utility structures and business models to support the adoption of a new energy technology.

A century later, history is repeating itself, but with some significant twists. In the third industrial age, our economy and communities will be notably powered by renewable, distributed energy. Just like their predecessors, city leaders are striving to accelerate their transition to a low carbon energy future, once again, to protect local resilience and prosperity.

There are two important differences this time. Climate change concerns are a considerable driver, as cities embrace their fundamental role in reducing global greenhouse gas emissions. As well, new structures and business models must emerge within, and alongside, a well-established, centralized energy system which has done a good job of powering our economy and communities for decades.

Times were simpler a hundred years ago. It was easier for politicians, policymakers and business to convene and solve a problem. Indeed, they were often the same people. Today, these spheres, by and large, exist apart from one another, often for good reason. While regulators have been kept at arm’s length from legislators, to protect the independence of the regulatory process, this has also placed structural barriers in the path of practice-based problem solving, which is especially problematic in disruptive times.

Legislators and regulators can play an important leadership role by establishing an environment for problem solvers to thrive, and reduce the barriers between the problem solvers and system challenges.

New social innovations can help bring these worlds together, like the Spectrum of Participation, developed by the International Association of Public Participation (IAP2), or the growing practice of Collective Impact, which provides a structured approach to tackling deeply entrenched and complex social problems. Both provide tools that promote collaboration across government, business, civil society and citizens, to achieve significant and lasting social change. They are deliberative processes that are anchored by a common definition of the problem, engage early to build trust among stakeholders, and carefully manage participant expectations, while respecting the role of institutional decision-makers. The tools they employ endeavor to transcend polarized opinions, that are certainly dominant in our nation’s current energy dialogue, to engage the “missing middle”. While better decision-making, not consensus, is the primary goal, they often root out win-win solutions.

This are uncharted territory for Canada’s energy sector. Energy is coming back home again, as we go into to the future. We should spend a little more time away from the board room table, and a bit more at the kitchen table.

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