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Does increasing the power from citizens increase the power of citizens?

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Poster for Event at University of Ottawa, Feb 10, 2014

By Stewart Fast,  Queen’s University

There are now more than 18,000 grid-connected solar power generation sites in Ontario and more than 50,000 proposals for solar generation.  Most of these sites are owned by individual households and some by community co-operatives like OREC. This is a significant change to the physical structure and ownership model of our electricity system. Instead of small numbers of very large electricity generation sites (e.g., three nuclear generation stations in all of Ontario) we see large numbers of very small electricity generation sites.   In the past, the role of citizens in the electricity system was limited to being a consumer of electricity. Now citizens are pursuing the role of electricity producers.

What does this mean for decision-making and coordination of the electricity sector? What new perspectives do these citizen-producers bring to the table? These kinds of questions relate to what academics and policy-wonks often call “governance.” Governance is a broad term. At a very general level it means social and economic coordination or the “steering” of society. Governance implies a shift away from government by the state to governance by both state and non-state actors. By introducing thousands of electricity producers into the electricity sector, the governance of electricity in Ontario may be changing.

Here are three potential changes: (1) Increased energy literacy  (2) Social license for new generation projects (3) More social cohesion and resilience in communities.

(1)    Increased energy literacy . North Americans use three times more energy and emit three times more greenhouse gas per capita than the global average. Yet, few Canadians are aware of even the most basic facts about energy. A 2012 Senate report found “a disturbing lack of energy literacy, awareness and sophistication amongst Canadians” and declares “… improving energy literacy … essential for our prosperity now and in the future.” There is evidence in the academic literature that ownership of electricity production leads to greater awareness of the patterns of energy consumption, to feelings of empowerment and to  citizens taking climate change more seriously. Intuitively this makes sense. Producers estimate, measure and compare electricity generation quantities and sources as part of their new role. Energy coops like OREC often have education as part of their mandate. A concrete example is OREC’s project at the Samuel Genest high school which provides a real-time and hands on learning experience with energy production to high school students and their parents.

(2)    Social license for new generation projects. Ontario like other parts of the world faces severe problems around social acceptance of new electrical generation projects. From the cancelled natural gas plant scandal to a powerful social movement opposed to wind farms, Ontario energy planning desperately seeks legitimacy.  Involving citizen-producers and energy co-ops like OREC may  help to rebuild the trust and legitimacy of the planning process. In consultations conducted in 2013 by the Ontario Power Authority: Sixty-one percent (61%) indicated a preference to have their communities represented by citizens or community advocacy groups rather than the electricity utilities and local governments in energy planning. To a certain extent this is already occurring; in 2013 OREC joined with other community groups and solar businesses to advocate that regulatory agencies recognize planned regional transmission station upgrades. In other words, citizen-producers and energy coops are actors that are already engaged in a policy direction that the provincial government is pushing for: that is for regional actors take more responsibility for their own energy needs; be it new generation, conservation or transmission and distribution changes.

(3)    More social cohesive and resilient communities. Joint ownership of solar electricity generation such as the model pursued by OREC brings citizens together in a shared activity. It creates linkages between neighbours and serves to build social capital and cohesion in communities. Strong communities are more resilient to all types of hazards. Social capital and community resilience will the topic of an upcoming blog.

Hear more about OREC and implications for governance of the electricity sector on Feb 10 at the University of Ottawa.


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