Improving Community Engagement on Energy

Communities are at the forefront of the changes being made in our energy system, and not just as consumers of energy.

The public will be called upon to re-think how things work, and what their energy priorities are. As a result, people will be faced with new kinds of infrastructure developments in their backyard that they have not encountered before and likely don’t understand.

If we don’t want future energy infrastructure to face the problems and delays that we have had in the recent past – delays in everything from pipelines to renewables to electricity transmission – it is crucial that we engage with the public now, to make them part of the discussion early.

Effective community engagement means giving the public both the capacity and the opportunity to participate in energy decision-making in their communities. To help improve engagement, in 2017 Energy Exchange launched its Energy Ambassadors program, a community capacity-building initiative that builds off our energy literacy work and our Primer on Energy Systems in Canada.

2018 was a busy year for the Energy Ambassadors program. We held four pilots across Canada:
 
• In May, we were in Wawa, Ontario, to help the community understand a modern wood heating program
• In June, we were in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, to discuss a proposed utility-scale solar project in the city
• In October, we were in Digby, Nova Scotia, to talk to the community about a proposed energy storage project
• In November, we went to Inuvik, Northwest Territories, to discuss a wind power project.

Energy Ambassadors pilot in Wawa, ON, public workshop

In all the communities we held two sessions. The first was a small symposium aimed at local stakeholders, including business, municipal, civil society and utilities. The second session was directed at the general public.

The information we present is not only about the proposed projects, but is also about how the energy system works as a system. We also help the community members think about their own priorities for their energy systems, and the trade-offs they would be willing to make.

We had great turnout for all the events. The vast majority of attendees, around 80-90%, said they found the session valuable and it provided them with the information they needed.

But we are not done with the Energy Ambassadors project. From our initial pilots we learned a lot, including:

Energy Ambassadors pilot Saskatoon, SK, Stakeholder workshop

• The need for interactive games and activities to help people consider the trade-offs in energy systems, and what trade-offs they are willing to accept
• While we have had great turnout, we need to engage more of those who have felt left out of the discussions to date
• While environment was a key consideration when considering their energy futures, costs and economic opportunity can’t be ignored and are seen as critically important for communities
• While there are good examples of community engagement, everyone can improve
• We need to better provide practical next-steps to community members so they can more effectively engage with their own energy systems.
 

Energy Ambassadors pilot in Digby, NS, stakeholder symposium

From the people we met we heard a lot about being frustrated with municipalities and utilities and other incumbent energy companies. In many cases this frustration was not necessarily about what the municipality or company had done, but rather came from the community’s desire to be more involved, but feeling that they were not part of the discussion or that they have been given the capacity to shape their own energy systems.
 
Effective community engagement is essential for building sustainable and equitable energy systems in Canada. In 2019 Energy Exchange will continue with its Energy Ambassadors program, and will be freely providing all the tools we have developed for engaging the public online so that others can take what we have learned and apply it to their own community.
 

Energy Ambassadors pilot in Inuvik, NWT, public workshop

JOIN THE PILOT!

We will also be continuing to run pilots of the Energy Ambassadors program across Canada. If you know of a community facing an energy infrastructure project and feel it could benefit from Energy Ambassadors, please let us know. Please go here for more information on what we are looking for, or contact me at [email protected].