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Edmonton’s city council approves citizen-supported Energy Transition Strategy in the face of changing climate

// Charlie Biddiscombe
// Charlie Biddiscombe

Edmonton’s city council made history on April 29, voting unanimously in favour of a citizen-supported Energy Transition Strategy that aims to cut greenhouse gas emissions, diversify the energy economy and transition towards becoming a world-class low-carbon city.

The Energy Transition Strategy proposes an eight-year action plan to mitigate the risks of climate change, along with managing the risk of fossil fuel price volatility and scarcity, by applying environmental measures to energy use in buildings and industry, water and waste water, land use and transportation, and energy generation.

The strategy anticipates programming will cost $25 – $30 million from the municipal and provincial government from 2018 – 2021; however, by 2035 it’s projected that the implemented strategy will generate a net profit of $2.5 billion in energy cost savings.

“Historically, council has been ambiguous on this issue,” Mayor Don Iveson said during council’s deliberation of the strategy. “But we need to send a clear signal that we intend to lead the nation in setting standards for environmental sustainability.”

Ward 8 Councillor Ben Henderson echoed the mayor’s call to action and vocalized the urgency for the city to approve the energy transition strategy.

“Time is our enemy here and we’ve lost time. Ninety-two percent of the citizen’s panel accepted a low-carbon plan in Edmonton. Do we really need to send it back for more citizen engagement?” Henderson asked his fellow councillors.

Henderson was referring to the Citizens’ Panel on Edmonton’s Energy and Climate Challenges, an extensive citizen engagement process organized by the Centre for Public Involvement (CPI) and the Alberta Climate Dialogue (ABCD) that brought together 56 diverse Edmontonians to discuss issues surrounding energy transition and climate change.

The outcome of a six-day deliberation in early 2013 revealed that 92 percent of panellists recommended that Edmonton strive to become a low-carbon city by the year 2050.

Fiona Cavanagh, executive director of CPI and one of the principal organizers behind the Citizens’ Panel, says that critical attention was given to recruitment of the panellists, ensuring that all stakeholders, including people representing the oil-and-gas industry, were at the table.

“We recruited for attitudinal diversity,” Cavanagh says. “We wanted to ensure there were people who were climate change skeptics, or those who didn’t have much trust in municipal government. We wanted to ensure there was a whole range of people in the room.”

Panellists were given balanced educational materials and heard from a wide range of experts on the issues to help them weigh evidence and priorities on energy transition. Citizens dedicated more than 42 hours participating and deliberating, which Cavanagh says, “defies the notion of citizen apathy.”

“The process really got [panellists] thinking through ‘what is the future that we want for Edmonton in terms of energy transition?'” she explains.

During council’s deliberation on the strategy, Dave Loken, councillor for Ward 3, spoke to the need to involve Edmonton’s business community in implementation.

“Local businesses doesn’t want to be disadvantaged,” Loken reminded council.

In the week leading up to council’s decision, the Edmonton Chamber of Commerce, representing five local businesses, wrote a letter to council that outlined their desire to have a bigger voice in Edmonton’s energy strategy, moving forward.

“What we are looking for are market-driven solutions,” explains Janet Riopel, CEO of the Edmonton Chamber of Commerce. “We wanted to make sure there would be a steering-committee that would include industry at the table.”

“Since our first letter, we’ve held a number of meetings with administration and we feel the city will address our concerns,” Riopel says, though she would not comment on details.

Randall Benson, owner of Gridworks Energy Group, a solar design and installation business, was among 42 other local businesses that signed an open letter to council, urging councillors to approve the energy strategy. As a longtime advocate for investing in renewable energy, Benson enthusiastically welcomes Edmonton’s Energy Transition Strategy, though he argues that it’s been long overdue.

“It’s been frustrating to see many other places bring in a policy for solar, wind and other renewables and they do so well with it,” Benson says. “Yet here in Alberta, we have some of the best solar and wind resources in the world—and no [policy].”

In September 2010, Edmonton initiated a pilot project for solar installation, providing financial incentives for community buy-in, allotting $100 000 for residential and $100 000 to commercial locations. Benson recalls how the city was “inundated with applications,” and within the first hour of launching the program to the public, he had emails from more than 35 Edmontonians wanting solar power systems.

“It’s not a matter of interest, or a matter of supply and demand—it’s a matter of political will. [With] a supportive policy, I will be able to hire and employ a lot more people,” says Benson, who has already trained over 500 electricians to install solar systems.

Many of Edmonton’s academics are supportive of the city’s approval of the Energy Transition Strategy, including Debra Davidson, a professor with the Department of Resource Economics and Environmental Sociology at the University of Alberta.

Over the past decade, Davidson has been studying community responses and adaptations to climate change. She contributed to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change research, the most comprehensive assessment of climate change undertaken yet.

In 2011, Davidson served on an expert panel that helped to guide The Way We Green, an environmental strategy in Edmonton, which was a policy precursor to the Energy Transition Strategy.

“There was a lot of groundwork that went into the strategy, so I wasn’t surprised to hear of council’s outcome—though very, very pleased,” Davidson says.

She stresses that climate change is already impacting Edmonton and Alberta and that there will be more changes to come down the road.

“We’re already observing notable changes in global average temperatures,” Davidson notes. “In Alberta, the loss of snow and ice pack will have a lot of implications for water-use, as it’s our primary source of water for cities and towns.

“We will likely also see an increased frequency and intensity of extreme heat during summers, which affects cities because we’re covered in concrete and cement.”

An “urban heat island” (UHI) is what scientists use to describe the increased temperatures caused by a concentrated density of people, cars, buildings and industry. Studies show that the UHI can negatively impact air and water quality in urban areas, and often contribute to energy demands in the summer, straining resources.

Several councillors echoed Davidson’s concerns about climate change in council last week, expressing the urgency to approve Edmonton’s Energy Transition Strategy.

“If we delay, we’re going to be sitting here [in the future] and it will cost us more,” Henderson said. “It has to be our number-one priority. We’re all in this together.”

The strategy will aim to reduce Edmonton’s greenhouse gas emissions by 35 percent by 2035, setting an example for the province to get on board. In 2014, the auditor general criticized the Alberta government for failing to implement and monitor its emissions-reduction strategies.

Moving forward with the strategy’s implementation, the city will form a steering committee of expert stakeholders and establish the terms of reference.

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