Urgent Action Needed to Put the City of Ottawa’s Renewable Energy Strategy Back on Track

SUMMARY:

The City of Ottawa stands at a critical juncture for action on clean energy. Mayor Watson and City Council have an opportunity to initiate Ottawa’s clean energy transition with a strong Renewable Energy Strategy, but the window of opportunity for meaningful action is closing.

In May 2014, well before the last municipal election, the City of Ottawa promised to develop a clean energy strategy that would help Ottawa transition away from its dependence on fossil fuels by promoting renewable energy, energy efficiency and energy conservation. Three years later, the strategy is still focused on studies and planning, with almost no concrete action in sight.  We need a real clean energy strategy – one that includes meaningful policy change recommendations and significant new investments. There’s a serious risk that such a strategy will not be delivered during this term of council. That means a real strategy will only arrive after the next election, if at all!

This is a totally unnecessary delay given the amount of time that has already passed since Council first promised to prepare the strategy and the amount of work that has already gone into the process. We need Mayor Watson and City Council to step in and put the process back on track so that the Renewable Energy Strategy that staff presents to Council at the end of this year is a real clean energy strategy – not a plan to possibly develop and approve a strategy sometime in the future (click here for a link to our petition).

What do we mean by this?

On February 21, 2017, city staff presented a progress report on the long-promised Renewable Energy Strategy to the Environment and Climate Protection Committee of the City of Ottawa. At the committee meeting, city staff promised to present Council with a Renewable Energy Strategy by the end of 2017, but all indications are that they are not planning on presenting Council with a real strategy. Instead, they are proposing to present a “plan to plan”, a document that includes a lot of important analysis but does not include meaningful policy change recommendations or significant new investments. It also looks like this “plan to plan” will be brought to City Council after the 2018 budget has already been decided, which means that significant new investments may not be considered until after the next election in early 2019.

City Hall is essentially punting the decision about meaningful policy change commitments and significant new investments into the next term of council – more than five years after the original promise was made! In other words, the last City Council promised to prepare a Renewable Energy Strategy and the current City Council is now being told that that a real strategy will not be in place until the next City Council is elected, if at all.

How many city councils does it take to prepare a Renewable Energy Strategy?

This is a totally unnecessary delay and something can still be done to fix the problem.

Mayor Watson and Council can put the process back on track by doing two things:

  • instructing staff to present City Council with a real clean energy strategy in 2017 – one that includes meaningful policy change recommendations and significant new investments– instead of just a “plan to plan”.
  • ensuring that these significant new investments are included in the 2018 budget and beyond.

Click here to sign our petition calling on the Mayor to ensure that the City of Ottawa adopts a real clean energy strategy by the end of 2017.

What follows outlines the long history of the Renewable Energy Strategy process, explains where we are today, and outlines what we mean by a “real clean energy strategy” as opposed to just a “plan to plan”.

BACKGROUND:

In 2014, as controversy mounted around the fact that the City did not have an active climate change plan, the City of Ottawa cobbled together and released an Air Quality and Climate Change Management Plan. This was an important moment for people in our city who care about climate change, but the plan was ultimately incomplete. The Climate Plan set new greenhouse gas reduction targets, but it was essentially a laundry list of actions that the City was already planning to take. The 2014 Climate Plan did not include any major new investments, nor did it announce any meaningful new policy change commitments.

That said, the 2014 Climate Plan was still good news. For the first time in a long time, an Ottawa mayor was standing on stage in front of hundreds of people arguing that climate change was one of the most important issues facing humanity today. Mayor Watson acknowledged the important role that cities have in promoting solutions and he said that the City of Ottawa would not only set new greenhouse gas reduction targets, but it would also work to surpass them. Most importantly, the Climate Plan that was adopted by City Council in May 2014 clearly stated that the City would announce new and desperately needed actions in order to honour its commitments and meet its goals.

Among other things, the 2014 Climate Plan clearly stated that the City of Ottawa would prepare and approve a Renewable Energy Strategy – a strategy to promote renewable energy, energy efficiency, and conservation in Ottawa.

And then nothing happened. Months passed and the 2014 municipal election ramped up. To his credit, the Mayor – along with many city councillors – clearly stated their support for action on climate change in response to Ecology Ottawa’s 2014 election survey. Furthermore, at an all-candidates’ debate on the environment, the Mayor said that taking action on climate change was a “moral responsibility”.

After the 2014 election, the Mayor appointed Councillor David Chernushenko – a major environmental champion – to chair the Environment Committee. The new City Council reiterated its intention to develop a Renewable Energy Strategy as one of its official Term of Council Priorities. Council promised to work “in collaboration with community partners… to advance energy conservation, energy efficiency and renewable energy generation…”.

Over the next two years, staff and leading councillors worked hard to bring together stakeholders and facilitate a conversation about a Renewable Energy Strategy. Despite these efforts, when City Staff presented a progress report to Council on February 21 of this year, there was not a clear commitment to produce a real strategy – one with policy change recommendations and significant new investments – by the end of this year.

WHAT DO WE WANT?

In the broadest sense, we want three things. First, we want the City of Ottawa, and all levels of government, to help the people of Ottawa save money by reducing energy waste. Ottawa has the potential to become one of the most efficient cities in the world, a place that understands that energy is expensive and that there is a lot that can be done to improve energy efficiency and conservation.

Second, we want the City of Ottawa to help Ottawa residents and businesses create jobs and build an even stronger clean technology hub in the city. Energy efficiency investments create local jobs and renewable energy is quickly becoming an important area of job growth in North America. Furthermore, Ottawa is already well positioned as a hub for technology and innovation. We want our city to attract great minds from across Canada and around the world that are excited by the way that Ottawa’s tech sector is working to accelerate the clean energy transition. With the right municipal, provincial and federal support, Ottawa can become a world class centre of innovation that is addressing the critical energy issues of the 21st century.

Third, we want the City of Ottawa to do its fair share to fight climate change and help Ottawans do the same – an issue that Mayor Watson has acknowledged is our “moral responsibility”. The City of Ottawa’s own operations only account for a small portion of Ottawa’s overall greenhouse gas emissions, but the operations of the provincial and federal governments only account for a small percentage of Ontario and Canada’s emissions. When the province and the federal government release a climate change plan, they focus on making Ontario and Canada leaders in transitioning away from our dependence on fossil fuels and fighting climate change as a whole. That is what we want from the City of Ottawa, the Mayor, and City Council – a plan focused on changing our emissions profile as a city, rather than small tweaks to emissions generated by the municipality itself.

The vast majority of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions are associated with activities that occur in cities, and city governments have an important role to play in helping to address these emissions. Cities are where we make the day-to-day decisions that have a profound effect on our personal greenhouse gas emissions. Climate change is in many ways a product of the decisions we make on how we heat our homes, how we design our cities and how we build our transportation networks.

In short, all levels of government in Canada can play a role in the fight against climate change. While some Canadian cities (e.g., Vancouver, Toronto) have demonstrated leadership in this area,  the City of Ottawa remains far behind.

BUT ISN’T THE CITY ALREADY PLAYING A LEADING ROLE IN THE FIGHT AGAINST CLIMATE CHANGE?

The short answer to this question is “absolutely not”, but there is also a more nuanced answer and we should give credit where credit is due.

The Mayor has continued to talk about the importance of taking action on climate change. For instance, he specifically mentioned the Renewable Energy Strategy in his 2017 budget speech. The City of Ottawa’s 2017 budget also committed $300,000 in new funding for renewable energy and efficiency projects, above and beyond existing programs.

The City of Ottawa has also dedicated staff that have made a good faith effort to engage stakeholders in the development of a renewable energy and efficiency strategy. We sincerely appreciate the City of Ottawa’s efforts to convene a broad group of stakeholders to work together on a Renewable Energy Strategy (also called “Energy Evolution”), and we think that interesting and valuable research is underway. For example, the City is preparing 12 to 15 “pathway analyses” that will look at paths forward in specific areas of energy use.

It is also the case that climate change is a “many headed beast” and that the City of Ottawa is making an effort in some critical areas. Doing an effective job to promote the clean energy transition in Ottawa basically boils down to two areas: the built environment (how we heat, cool and electrify our houses and buildings) and transportation (the energy we use to get around).

Transportation is the second biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions in Ottawa, so investing in pedestrian, cycling and public transit infrastructure and electrifying motorized transportation is critical.

Light rail represents perhaps the biggest infrastructure investment of any kind in the City’s history, so the City deserves credit for this important work. Also, the new “complete streets” policy – if properly implemented – is a sincere effort to rethink how we build our streets to encourage all forms of transportation and give people real choices for getting around the city.

But the biggest challenge remains our built environment. How we heat, cool and electrify our homes, offices and other buildings accounts for most of our energy use and produces most of our greenhouse gas pollution. This means we have to start substituting natural gas with other more efficient forms of energy, building to higher standards, accelerating intensification, and retrofitting existing homes and buildings. In other words, we need a real Renewable Energy Strategy.

While it is true that over the past couple of years the City has invested in some new programs, such as converting our street lights to LED lighting, it is also true that the City has slashed millions of dollars in funding for other critical programs (such as investments to save energy in city buildings). The Renewable Energy Strategy is supposed to be an opportunity to think creatively about promoting renewable energy, energy efficiency and conservation.  That is why it is so important that the City adopt a real strategy. That is also why it is so disappointing that three years after the Mayor promised to produce a strategy, there is no end yet in sight.

WHAT WOULD A REAL CLEAN ENERGY STRATEGY LOOK LIKE?

A real clean energy strategy needs to be grounded in three fundamental building blocks.

First, a real strategy must include specific and meaningful policy change commitments.

All levels of government – federal, provincial and municipal – exist in large part to set the rules that society is expected to follow. A strategy that fails to commit government to enact specific and meaningful policy changes is not a real strategy, it is just a “plan to develop a plan”. City staff are doing some important research as part of the process of preparing the Renewable Energy Strategy, but there is no clear commitment to propose specific and meaningful policy change commitments as part of the 2017 Renewable Energy Strategy.

Second, a real strategy on an issue as large as clean energy and efficiency must include significant new investments.

Citizens pay their taxes with an assumption that those resources will be used to meet society’s needs and solve problems. Reversing climate change by promoting the transition to clean energy is amongst the most urgent issues facing humanity today. As Mayor Watson put it during the last election, we have a “moral responsibility” to take action, and we could be creating jobs and saving millions of dollars a year by reducing energy waste. This is an investment in our future that costs money – for new projects, new technologies, new plans and strategies. Therefore, a clean energy strategy that fails to make significant new investments cannot be considered a real strategy.

While City Council has recently approved $300,000 in new funding for actions related to the Renewable Energy Strategy, this is both a one-off investment (i.e., there is no clear commitment to provide additional funding next year) and it is nowhere near the size of the investment that we need. An issue as significant as promoting renewable energy and energy efficiency in our homes and buildings, our largest source of greenhouse gas emissions, should receive at least as much investment as we might spend on a single major road widening project, or the cost of the various celebrations related to Canada’s 150th birthday in Ottawa.

Third, a real strategy must include a well-thought-out approach to engage key stakeholders and the general public.

Local businesses, institutions, and not-for-profit organizations like Ecology Ottawa can be important allies in this work and there are hundreds of thousands of people across Ottawa who are waiting to join the City on this important journey. A real government strategy should include a well-thought-out approach to work with these stakeholders to save money, create jobs, and promote renewable energy and energy efficiency.

The City of Ottawa has done an excellent job convening stakeholders under the umbrella of Energy Evolution. We hope they will also embrace the unprecedented opportunity that the provincial and federal climate change plans represent. For the first time in history, both the provincial and federal governments are rolling out meaningful climate change plans. There has never been a more important time for the City of Ottawa to be thinking strategically about making the most of provincial and federal support to fight climate change and transition to a clean energy future.

CONCLUSION:

City staff promised to present Council with a Renewable Energy Strategy by the end of 2017 (more than three years after first committing to develop a strategy), but most indications suggest that they are not planning on presenting Council with a real strategy. Instead, they are proposing to present a “plan to plan”, a document that includes a lot of important analysis but does not include meaningful policy change recommendations or significant new investments. It also looks like this “plan to plan” will be brought to City Council after the 2018 budget has already been decided, which means that significant new investments will not be considered until after the next election in early 2019. Worse, if the make-up of council changes substantially, plans could be shelved for even longer.

This is a totally unnecessary delay and something can still be done to fix the problem. Mayor Watson and Council can put the process back on track by instructing staff to present City Council with a real clean energy strategy. Mayor Watson and Council can also ensure that significant new investments are included in the 2018 budget and projected into future years. We need to appeal directly to the Mayor and ask our councillors to insist on a real clean energy strategy.

You can sign our petition urging the Mayor to take action here.

For more information, or to provide feedback on this very preliminary draft document, please contact:

Graham Saul, Executive Director
Ecology Ottawa
Email: graham.saul@ecologyottawa.ca
Tel: 613-860-5353

 

 

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