Three City of Regina councillors took off for the Renewable Cities conference in Vancouver, British Columbia early in their terms back in 2017.[i] The event hosts hundreds of delegates and speakers from around the globe, all converging to discuss climate change and what is being done to confront this existential challenge. What struck the delegates from Saskatchewan’s capital city was how much of the heavy lifting was being done by municipalities.
Over 175 towns and cities are pursuing 100 percent renewable energy targets, according to a Renewable Cities database. Among them are international cities like Vancouver and San Diego, as well as smaller communities like Oxford County, Ontario, all of whom are taking charge by committing to ambitious renewable energy production targets. Mayors and Councillors spoke about initiatives they had commenced decades earlier, while others enthusiastically talked of how new they were to the game. What many of these leaders had in common was recognition that their respective national and regional governments were not taking the matter seriously enough. Communities, they said, need to be at the forefront of change.
Inspired by conversation and panels, the Regina councillors put pen to paper and started to craft a motion destined for Council. Language and targets from other municipalities were plugged into the document. Commitments established by the City’s Official Community Plan (OCP), which outlined very broad environmental targets, were used as a rationale, specifically, section 4.14.5 of the OCP, which commits to “Encourage the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions through the use of alternative energy sources.”
Importantly, the ecological realities of climate change and greenhouse gas emissions provided a necessary context as well. Drought prone southern Saskatchewan should know this well. At certain moments, the councillors paused and reflected on whether or not this could even be discussed in Canada’s second largest oil exporting province, which relies on coal to produce most of its electricity. An oil pipeline factory and heavy crude refinery populate the skyline, after all.
The councillors returned to Regina energized and inspired by the positive media coverage of their time at the conference. “Regina Councillors return from Vancouver with fresh view of renewable energy options,” read the Regina Leader Post headline.[iii] But their goal of advancing the motion was sidelined by an austerity-driven provincial budget in 2017, which forced Council and the City’s administration to focus on surviving tough financial times. The motion was temporarily shelved.
By the fall of 2018, a summer of wildfires and a startling report published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reminded Canadians that climate change could no longer be ignored.[iv] The Report made clear that a global response was necessary, and that climate change was invariably linked to sustainable development and poverty. Meanwhile, local experts and environmental advocates were pointing out the deficiencies of the provincial government’s relaxed attitude towards the crisis and its pre-occupation with fighting a carbon tax.[v] The NDP Opposition unveiled its own renewable energy roadmap, “Renew Saskatchewan”, around the same time.[vi] Both parties, of course, have been historically wedded to the fossil fuel industry.
And then there was carbon capture. Over a $1.5 billion had been invested in the Boundary Dam carbon capture unit and coal remains the mainstay of SaskPower’s energy generation capacity. Critics say the unit is uneconomical and has resulted in an inflation of electricity prices while failing to move the province in a renewable direction.[vii] Experts are equally critical of the Crown utility’s commitment to reaching up to 50 percent of renewable targets by 2030, believing that more resources need to be funnelled into wind, solar, and geothermal than carbon storage.[viii] In Regina, academics, experts, and activists were converging on a “just transition” conference to talk about political and logistical steps needed to move Saskatchewan away from its reliance on fossil fuels in the province. For the councillors, this provided an exceptional backdrop to showcase their motion, which was heading for a vote in October.
In front of a packed town hall, residents, engineers, green energy producers, climate experts, business leaders, activists, and civic policy makers talked about how a small city like Regina can make an impact. If successful, Regina would become the sixth city in Canada to join the 100 percent renewable target club. The focus was squarely on building alternatives as the means of tackling climate change. The 12-year timeline issued by the IPCC was indeed sobering, but the key to action is making change seem possible. Residents who had installed solar panels on their homes talked about the cost savings and the jobs created by their investment. Economic Development Regina (EDR), the arms-length municipal development agency, had recently released a report citing the importance of civic leadership, policy, and incentives, as key to making renewable energy a cornerstone of the regional economy. It was possible, EDR showed, for renewables to overtake oil, gas, and mining, as industries business leaders associate with the City.[ix]
When the time to debate the motion came, councillors were confronted by a packed Henry Baker Hall, the name of the council chambers. Teachers encouraged their students to address council as delegates, former oil industry geologists talked about the need to transition, representatives from the Blue Dot movement continued their advocacy work by insisting that their elected representatives make Regina a Renewable City by 2050. So, when the Mayor and Council unanimously supported the motion, the vote was met with a standing ovation from members of the public. But now the real work begins.
Councillors tasked city staff to construct a strategy by the end of 2019 as a starting point. One of the challenges in Saskatchewan is the restrictive nature of the governing Cities Act that outlines the scope of municipal powers, specifically when it comes to taxation authority and thus revenue generation options. And although the existence of publicly-owned energy utilities – SaskPower and SaskEnergy – could provide an incredible asset when linking renewable policy with technological infrastructure, restrictive language of the Power Corporation Act creates barriers for individual and larger private energy interests from taking full advantage of southern Saskatchewan’s incredible wind and solar resources. Still, the Renewable Regina goal is not limited to the conventional production of electricity alone.
Earlier motions aimed at exploring electric vehicle infrastructure, fitting city buildings with solar panels, the use of urban planning goals, leveraging the expertise of development Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs), like Dream, which have considerable renewable energy assets outside of the province, among other factors, will help the City conceptualize opportunities and challenges.
The crafting of “green” incentive structures means exploring everything from tax policies to investments when it comes to marshalling support from residential and commercial property owners. Most importantly, the path forward needs to involve a platform for civic engagement. Councillors were overwhelmed by local and national industry groups and experts who wanted a seat at the table when it came to activating the motion. Citizens also need to be part of the conversation. That means recognizing the transition to 100 percent renewable is an opportunity for public engagement during the process of making policy. As the most transparent and accessible level of government, municipalities must be at the forefront of these developments. Indeed, as the IPCC report suggests, the climate change challenge requires sensitivity to a gambit of social and technical questions and cannot be mitigated by elected officials alone. There are also lessons from other destinations in Saskatchewan from which Regina can learn.
Less than 200 km away, Cowessess First Nation has already surpassed Regina’s accomplishments when it brought one megawatt of solar and wind capacity on-line. The total cost of the project: $6.8 million.[x] “Today it’s just to show the world that First Nations in this province and this country, we want to play a part,” Cowessess Chief, Cadmus Delorme, remarked in a CBC interview.[xi] The nearby City of Lumsden is pushing SaskPower to construct a solar farm on municipally owned property, in addition to the solar panels it installed on the community’s civic centre, which generates fifty percent of the facility’s electricity needs.[xii]
The village of Hazlet, Saskatchewan (population 300) has for over eight years powered the cooling system of its small community rink with locally produced wind power.[xiii] The Town’s economic development officer at the time, Lindsay Alliban, credits high school principal Kristy Sletten for bringing the idea before the local council. Funding and technical details were made possible through a handful of partners that included SaskPower, the Ministry of Environment, and the Saskatchewan Research Council, among others. The City of Saskatoon has similarly embarked on this journey, tackling both renewable energy production and greenhouse gas emissions. There, civic engagement strategies matched with internal audits, expertise, and Saskatoon Light and Power have helped to activate the City’s objectives.[xiv] These stories are not uncommon in rural Saskatchewan, so in many ways Regina needs to play-catch up with its neighbours.
The Regina example demonstrates that even in the heartland of oil and gas there is excitement about the potential of increasing our reliance on renewable energy and in moving away from fossil fuels as a source of electricity. Climate change facilitates often-tense conversations in this political climate, but people want to talk about new forms of economic activity, new forms of civic engagement, and ways of changing how we can define ourselves as a City. This is what underlines the IPCC’s call to action. As the three City of Regina councillors discovered, the Renewable Energy motion provoked people to be optimistic about how we must respond to an otherwise dire environmental reality.
ANDREW STEVENS is a first time city councillor in the City of Regina. He is also an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Business Administration at the University of Regina. Along with Councillors Joel Murray and John Findura, Andrew helped to write the Renewable Energy motion that was passed unanimously by City Council in 2018.