Toronto Star op. ed. Sept. 22, 2011

Communities Need a Bigger Role in Energy Planning

With the passage of the Green Energy Act, Ontario has accelerated the shift toward a more renewable energy system. What are now needed are measures to more fully involve communities in local energy-system decisions.

A few years ago, a wave of municipal decisions and local “moratoria” put the brakes on wind-energy production in many communities across the province. This was prompted by local uncertainty about the impacts of wind energy. Because of this barrier to new projects, the Green Energy Act has removed municipalities’ ability to effectively veto renewable-energy projects.

Because their role in the land-use planning decision for wind projects has been removed, municipalities may now think they have no role in local energy decision- making processes. But communities do have an important role to play in responding to renewable-power project proposals under the Green Energy Act.

The act has set standards as to where various types of renewable-power facilities can be located, and creates opportunities for interested persons – including municipalities – to participate in the approvals process.

Parties can now appeal Renewable Energy Approvals to the province’s Environmental Review Tribunal. This allows them to bring forward evidence pertaining to the impacts they are most concerned about. The tribunal holds an impartial hearing as to whether a particular project will cause serious harm to human health, or serious and irreversible harm to animal life, plant life, or the natural environment. While there is always room for improvement in an approvals system, this current process works well.

Despite this, we need to establish and empower community energy planning in Ontario, since much of our energy use – and our potential to change it for the better – remains at the local level. An addition should be made to the Green Energy Act to allow municipalities to prepare and pass Community Energy Plans, and to implement those plans in their local land-use, transit, water, and waste systems. This integrated approach will encourage communities to take advantage of the payoffs from concerted community energy planning.

The community’s energy consumers (big and small), local energy and water utilities, land-use planners, building communities, housing advocates, and waste- and transit-system operators, must all contribute to this planning, too. With community-based energy plans, community members can help make decisions about where and how to reduce energy use, or advocate for specific projects.

Communities that challenge themselves to understand their own power use, and then pursue innovative ways to ensure that need is met with healthy, renewable power, are likely to be vibrant, exciting communities, well-positioned for future economic opportunities and a high quality of life. The Green Energy Act has given us a much-needed push in this direction, but now we need to reinvigorate the role of communities in their energy systems.

This can be done with a simple adjustment to the Green Energy Act, giving communities a new power to plan and implement an integrated overview of their energy needs, and the best options to achieve those needs.